Barb VanDoorn of Lake Holcombe is winner of a major national Award for Teaching Excellence

Lake Holcombe school counselor Barb VanDoorn meets with students.

Lake Holcombe school counselor Barb VanDoorn is the winner of a prestigious California Casualty Award for Teaching Excellence, the NEA Foundation announced Monday. She will receive the award at the NEA Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Gala next February in Washington, D.C.

The awardees are nominated by their peers for their dedication to the profession, community engagement, professional development, attention to diversity, and advocacy for fellow educators.

“Getting to ‘making a difference’ and ‘succeeding’ is tricky but very basic. Combine two things: caring relationships and high expectations,” VanDoorn said.

WEAC President Ron Martin and Lake Holcombe school counselor Barb VanDoorn chat with young students.

VanDoorn was nominated for the award by WEAC President Ron Martin, who said she “anchors her educational philosophy in the importance of showing respect, demonstrating caring, and recognizing the intelligence of individuals.”

“She explains it is the job of educators to identify the strengths and needs of each student, and believes the counselor’s role is to take it one step further — advocating for each student in the classroom, the community, and in realizing each student’s future goals,” Martin said.

VanDoorn, Wisconsin’s 2016-17 Special Services Teacher of the Year, is the sole counselor for the Lake Holcombe School District’s 300 pupils, 60 percent of whom live in poverty. She is an outspoken advocate for school funding and for mental health services to better serve students and their families.

Martin noted that VanDoorn takes every junior on at least one college tour and has put into place significant supports in ACT and reading prep. She also sends every college freshman from the previous year’s graduating class a care package at school in the fall. “Their transition is often difficult; they need to know someone still has faith in them,” she said.

“She’s an idea woman, always thinking outside of the box,” said Amanda Wysocki, family consumer sciences and health teacher, citing the campaign VanDoorn started to raise funds to revamp the science rooms through service-learning work in partnership with the community, a program that continues today. “Barb is 100 percent dedicated to the students. I know she goes home at night thinking about them. But she also thinks of the staff and the community. She does so much, and people see her energy and spirit. She is dedicated to all her job entails, and to living life, too.”

That advocacy reaches beyond her community, as she’s led the statewide narrative (including being featured in a Department of Public Instruction video) that has resulted in movement from Wisconsin’s Legislature around mental health supports. She is an active member of the Wisconsin Teacher of the Year Group, working on solutions to the teacher shortage, and is also involved in the Every Teacher a Leader cadre at the state level to include educators’ voices in school policy decisions.

VanDoorn also is a dedicated member of the union, and finds value in working together toward common goals. In a time when many rural school locals are struggling to retain members, she encourages participation and is an example of how cooperation can be achieved between educators and administrators even in the absence of collective bargaining.

“I know from working with kids all these years that stress filters down,” she said. “The kids feel that stress. For a lot of kids, they don’t have support so their stress gets compounded. Wisconsin has the second highest depression rates in teens in the nation. It’s very important to realize that is a concern. We can help to make that better.”

Van Doorn’s colleagues describe the wide range of responsibilities she holds, from trauma-informed care to college preparation, including serving as the scholarship coordinator and working with community groups to support youth. She started the student council at the school, and also organized a shanty town where students built cardboard houses to stay in overnight to raise money and awareness about homelessness.

Martin noted that when he visited VanDoorn recently to shadow her for a day, he talked with senior Brianna who in 2014 was involved in a horrific car accident near the school. Brianna was in a coma for five weeks, followed by 20 weeks in the hospital. Brianna credits Mrs. VanDoorn with guiding her through emotionally and educationally so she could graduate with the other 20 students in her class.

“Accidents happen, family members die, parents get divorced. Kids don’t know how to handle school and all of that,” Brianna said. “A great teacher cares about each and every student’s abilities, and does everything he or she can possibly do to make sure every student enjoys going to school and learns. That’s the person Mrs. VanDoorn is. I don’t know if the school could survive without her.”

Of the 38 state winners of this year’s Awards for Teaching Excellence, five finalists will be announced at the beginning of the school year and receive $10,000 at the gala. The nation’s top educator will be revealed at the gala on February 9, 2018, and receive an additional $25,000. The gala will be livestreamed at neafoundation.org.

Below is a video from earlier this year when Barb VanDoorn was named Wisconsin’s Special Services Teacher of the Year:

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