Ypsilanti middle school teacher named Regional Teacher of the Year

Beth Vonck, a middle school language arts teacher at Washtenaw International Middle Academy in Ypsilanti Township, was recently named Regional Teacher of the Year (RTOY) by the Michigan Department of Education.

Vonck was one of 10 teachers across the state honored with the RTOY designation for the 2021-2022 school year. Each is also a finalist for a statewide honor, Michigan Teacher of the Year (MTOY).

Each of the 10 regional winners serve as representatives and advocates for their fellow teachers in Michigan though participation in the Michigan Teacher Leadership Advisory Council. Additionally, the MTOY is eligible to be a non-voting member of the state board of education and attend its monthly meetings in an advisory capacity.

"It's a really cool opportunity to make some change and maybe have a little bit of input into how we make changes in our state, because there's lots to be changed," Vonck says.

Vonck was nominated for the honor by her principal, Nhu Do, who wrote in her recommendation letter that Vonck is "the epitome of what we wish all educators could be: genuinely caring, intentionally reflective, equity-driven, and radically empathetic to all her students and family."

That "radical empathy" led to Vonck taking in a high school student that she'd taught in middle school when the student's parents could no longer care for her. The student lived with Vonck until the student graduated and went off to college.

"I like to say that I'm in the dessert of my career, my fun time," Vonck says. "I'm doing this because I really want to, because I really love it. Working at WIMA? It doesn't get better than this."

Vonck names inclusion and "creating opportunities for teachers of color and LGBTQ teachers to be more represented" as issues she'd like to address at a statewide level.

"In our building, we have an agreement that all students, teachers, and their families must use inclusive language, honoring each other. You don't always see that across the board," Vonck says. "I'd like to see more opportunities and more recruitment of teachers of color."

She says that while she's been a teacher for 40 years, having to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that "in the last year and a half, I've experienced more change than I'd made in a lifetime."

Vonck says she thinks that's good because it means schools are thinking of new ways to connect with students rather than just plugging along with "business as usual." She also thinks it's high time for schools to connect local issues to global ones and to prepare students for 21st-century jobs.

"We need to look at things, ask questions, and wonder about how we can effect change instead of just having things happen to us," Vonck says. "How can we be movers and shakers?"

More information about the Michigan Teacher of the Year program is available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.