Here is the text of the acceptance speech given by Valerie Penton Kibler, 2010 DJNF National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year, at the 2010 Fall National High School Journalism Convention in Kansas City, Missouri on November 13, 2010. Pictured above with DJNF board member Diana Mitsu Klos at the ASNE convention April 11, 2011.

Thank you very much to the Dow Jones News Fund for this unbelievable honor. I appreciate all that you do to spotlight the hard work of journalism teachers around the country. I’m humbled to be here today standing before a room full of people I respect and admire, heck idolize, more than you’ll ever know!!

Everything you really need to know about life you can learn in a journalism classroom just like my good friend Bradley Wilson got together on a poster in the last edition of CJET. But the one mantra that guides our lives on my staff is a slogan that a former editor-in-chief, Britt Conley came up with for us ten years ago and that is EVERY PERSON HAS A STORY. I have a story, my students all have stories and the people they interview have even more stories. The point is that all these stories intermingle and make our lives interesting – after all, story telling is an art that has been being passed on for generations.

What High School Journalism Means from on Vimeo.

My journalism story began in 1993 when my principal at the time Mike Rolen called me into his office and said “What will it take for me to get you to take over the Marionette?” (Marion Senior High School’s newspaper) I had been moving from room to room each period as an English teacher, so I said in the sarcastic tone (that I use sparingly, of course), “My own classroom.”

“Done,” he said.

“Uh oh,” I thought. I’m in trouble now. For you see, I had never taken a journalism class, never worked on an organized publication staff. Heck, I rarely even read a newspaper! But the idea of having my own space was too compelling – and the idea of my principal having my back was the deal closer. See, I knew from that very first conversation that I was going to be lucky because I had a principal who believed in the importance of a high school publication and what it did for kids. Ever since that day, I’ve always had principals and superintendents who were supportive of scholastic journalism. John Heubach and Irene Reynolds in Harrisonburg constantly went out on limbs for us because they passionately believed in kids.

I learned that you don’t have to know much about what you’re doing to grow into a successful staff. So with seven students in little ole Marion, my journey began. We went to the VHSL fall publications workshop where I sat in a 45-minute class hearing all about some mysterious thing called PageMaker which I left convinced we had to have on our one computer back in my classroom. In another workshop, I heard about how we should be exchanging with the best papers in the country so we could learn from each other. Somehow, I got a copy of The Little Hawk and thus began my admiration for Jack Kennedy and everything he did. I’m fairly convinced we provided his staff with monthly comic relief when they received our 8-page mimeographed rag, but what we received each month when that Little Hawk graced my mailbox was so incredibly valuable.

I learned that probably the most valuable experience in the journalism world is finding any way you can to get to the workshops, camps and conventions. In the next five years in Marion, our staff grew to close to 50 members and we learned the value of taking trips together to journalism conventions.

I got a postcard one spring about an event that was being held in Boston the following fall. I threw it in the trash, thinking there was no way the school board would ever let us leave the state. But something compelled me to get it out of the trash and save it on my desk. I finally decided to ask – if someone was going to say “no” it would be them, not me…and if they did say no, then we would be no worse off than we were right now.

Lo and behold they said yes on the condition that we raise all the funds. My students sold donuts, sponsored sock hops and peddled candy bars enough to raise every penny. This first trip was a staff-changing event in that it showed all of my kids from what they perceived as “lowly” southwest Virginia that they were just as good as any other teenager in this country. This point was really driven home when Michelle Leaman, our class clown known for her lazy approach to everything, actually received an award in a write-off competition.

I learned it is okay to step outside your comfort zone and take a risk. When I moved to Harrisonburg 13 years ago, I started all over again with a newspaper staff of 10 but a whole new set of stories. On my staff that first year was freshman Josh Sundquist who was coming to public school for the first time after being home-schooled all his life. Josh lost a leg to bone cancer at a young age, but nothing held him back. He is now a professional motivational speaker.

Bryan Whitten and Josh were back-to-back winners of the Colonel Charles Savedge Award, the highest honor for student journalists given in Virginia. It was a result of these kids winning that I was lucky to meet Bob Button, then-director of publications for VHSL. Bob invited me to get involved with VAJTA, the Virginia adviser’s group, and that one simple invitation opened doors to me that I didn’t even know existed.

I learned the importance of getting involved in your state in order to network in the world of journalism. Bob introduced me to Wilma Wirt, journalism guru at VCU and now one of my dearest friends. Affectionately dubbed a journalism ‘nazi’ by my students, she ruled workshops with an iron fist, but always, always took the time to put her arm around my kids who she barely new and show them compassion. She still remembers the names of kids she taught for one week in a summer years ago and asks about what they are doing now. And those students often ask me how she is doing. Journalism adds that personal touch, that interaction that teaching English just doesn’t allow.

I learned that even ‘famous’ people in the world of journalism are just like you and me and will always give you the time of day. Working with Bob and Wilma one summer at their editor’s workshop, I was beside myself when I got to meet another journalism idol, Bobby Hawthorne. An absolute lover of The Radical Write, I spent the week getting to know the brains behind the book. Bobby is our collective journalism soul mate. He truly gets high school journalism and he gets us, what we do and why we do it.

I’ve learned that in the journalism advising world the friends you make are genuine. My involvement in journalism in Virginia and nationally has led to friendships with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever known. And that’s the MAGIC of what we do. I’ve never met a person in journalism circles who wasn’t eager to help me out. Other people who I’ve put on a podium as my journalism ‘idols’ have taught me a lesson that I now try to teach my kids. And that is we are all just human beings and no matter our “celebrity status”, we’re no more or less important than anyone else.

NFL Hall of Fame Coach and NASCAR owner Joe Gibbs once said, “You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with.” Obviously, he knew how to surround himself with amazing people to experience the success he has in two very diverse sports careers. You will be very lucky if you are surrounded by wonderful teachers at your school like I am – treasure those people – they are angels.

In working with the national convention last fall, I learned what incredible people Linda Puntney and Logan Aimone are. They are like the principals of the school of scholastic journalism. They get blindsided by issues daily, yet deal with them with the grace of business professionals. They both have an unbelievable sense of humor that undoubtedly helps them excel in their field.

I’ve learned the importance of passing on what we do from generation to generation. There has been no greater mentor to me than Carol Lange who I affectionately called my “momma duck” as she guided me through working on the national convention in D.C. last year. Carol’s passion for scholastic journalism is contagious and it has been her encouragement and example that has helped me through the past ten years! Her passion and experience are just like that of my other Virginia idols such as Becky Sipos, Fran Sharer, Mary Kay Downes, Karen Harden, Jenn Seavey and Martha Akers who have paved the way for so many other young advisers to follow in their footsteps.

I’ve learned how some advisers will go above and beyond to help you and your students out. Fellow former Virginia adviser and current NAAF director Sandy Woodcock became a close friend when randomly a group of my students began stalking her at conventions, going to all her sessions. Instead of being alarmed by this, Sandy befriended these kids and took them to lunch! She also led me to one of the greatest journalism groups in the country, SIPA. If you’ve never attended a SIPA function, you’re missing out! They take southern hospitality and put a whole new spin on it! This group of amazing people is so passionate about journalism and they all pass that enthusiasm on to their kids.

I’ve learned that in life you can gain just as much knowledge from young people as you can from your elders. On multiple occasions I’ve been observed by a principal when one of my students was teaching me how to do something – more times than not related to technology.

But even in the advising realm, I’ve learned a ton from younger advisers. Working with Chad Rummel and Kelly Furnas to start jCamp at Virginia Tech, I learned that young advisers have such creative enthusiasm that we all should feed off of. Both of these young BFFs are amazing talents who have barely been tapped and I’ve always appreciated their ability to see all sides of a situation. In fact, I often approach new ideas fully anticipating Chad’s “REALLY????” when he reveals my naiveté.

I’ve learned the value of healthy competition while growing your staff. I can’t tell you the number of times my kids have grabbed Alan Weintraut’s A-Blast or Chad’s Oakton Outlook or Chris Waugaman’s Royal News just to see what stories are being covered in order to see if we have hopefully covered them first. I see my kids trying to beat their rivals in write-off competitions, but also cheering for them in national venues. I see my students make friends with other journalists at jCamp and then write them notes in exchange papers. In the process, I believe we’re all growing good citizens who will participate in their communities after they become professionals.

I’ve learned that what we do really has a HUGE impact on kids. My classroom (probably much like yours) seems to attract a weird mingling of personalities. But unlike my English classroom, I really get to know these kids – sometimes that is good, sometimes not so much. I think back over my years to the stories of some of my students.

I think of Sean Rolon who came into freshman journalism with huge anger management issues. I’d catch him frequently cussing out loud or physically hitting his computer monitor. I’m embarrassed to admit I asked Sean not to come back to journalism as a sophomore. I think just to spite me, he did. We went head to head, but by having to work with the other kids, he grew up in journalism. We still keep in touch frequently and he’s getting ready to do his student teaching to be a high school social studies teacher and possibly even a journalism adviser.

I think of Camila Domonoske, probably the smartest student (heck, person) I’ve ever known. When the journalism banquet ended at the end of her senior year and all the parents had cleaned up and left, I came back into the room for one last check to find her standing there all alone in her father’s arms bawling uncontrollably because her high school journalism career had come to an end. I didn’t really get it until seeing that how much of an impact we have on kids’ lives.

I think of the Anderson family, all four of whom were in the newspaper class with me. Well, Addison, the oldest – he quit after the first week because we weren’t eating enough pizza yet, but Becky, Emily and Molly all worked for four years on the staff and all played incredibly important yet unique roles. During Molly’s senior year, their mother was killed by a drunk driver while she was jogging early one morning and I learned how important the Newsstreak family was to these girls when I watched their peers help them get through one of the most difficult times in their lives.

I’ve learned the importance of family. Not just your family at home, but the surrogate family we provide for our students at school. It’s so important when we do what we do, with the long hours spent after school, taking trips etc. and with the multiple hours spent at home grading papers and planning for upcoming days, that you have people at home who are supportive of you.

I’ve always had a great support system at home. With three moms (that’s another story all in itself), two terrific sisters and brother-in-laws, and quite a large extended family (many of whom have discovered great cities when they’ve come along on journalism trips), I became the luckiest person in this room when I found my husband Bobby 13 years ago. Not only did he put up with me, but he became a cheerleader for everything I did at school. He came to every volleyball match while I was coaching – even when we stunk. He survived bus rides all over the east coast to attend journalism conventions and Lord knows he has listened to hours and hours of stories about my days at school that no person should have to endure. He often says “You don’t have to have a college education to make it in this world – you need common sense.” I’ve learned how true this is and how important it is that we continue to teach common sense life skills to our students.

I’ve learned that you don’t have to worry about writing your own story, sometimes your story will write itself. As a child when you fill out all those forms at school about what your parents do, I was always told by my dad to just put “Public Information Officer for the Department of the Army”. I had no idea what that meant, but in my house, parents were parents and kids were kids and we just didn’t ask questions when we got that look that said ‘that’s enough’.

When I took over the position in Marion, daddy started having conversations with me about the paper. He asked me to send it to him. He drove kids to conventions for me when I didn’t have enough room in my car. I didn’t understand his interest in this until I was home for Christmas when I was 30. We were watching the evening news and he turned to my stepmom and said, “Remind me to send a get-well card to Sam Donaldson.”

Always impressed by celebrity, I was shocked and said, “Why would you do that, daddy? You know Sam Donaldson?”

“Yes,” he brushed me off.

“Um, Daddy, I’m 30-years old and you’ve never mentioned this before???? Don’t you think this is something I should know???”

“Oh, Valerie, it’s no big deal….his wife was an intern for me when I worked at the Pentagon.”

No big deal? No big deal!!!! It was a huge deal!!!! I thought I should have been told at some point that daddy knew these famous people!

It didn’t really hit me until later that summer when I was in an adviser’s course being taught by Karen Flowers at the Carolina Journalism Institute. She told us we were going to do a writing assignment that would be very emotional and everyone would cry. I thought, “You’re crazy, woman….no writing I’m going to do is going to make me cry.”

I didn’t have the first sentence out when reading mine aloud when I began blubbering like an idiot. You see, it really hit me with that piece that I wrote that journalism was the one thing that truly connected me and my daddy. It was the moment that I finally realized how proud of me he was. I had never really understood that his job all those years had essentially been that of a reporter for the defense department. I gave him the piece I wrote for CJI for father’s day that year, a month before he passed away. I didn’t even realize until my stepmom told me how proud he was of that one piece of writing and how he had showed it to other people that writing can be a gift, both literally and figuratively.

My daddy is why I do what we do. My students are why I do what we do. And the stories I’ve heard and have been a part of are why I do what we do. Every one of you has multiple stories just like mine. Every one of you could just as easily be up here today and is equally if not more deserving of this honor. No matter how hard this job gets, there is a reward in the stories that we are a part of each and every day.

It’s up to us to teach kids that every person out there has a story. I have my story. My students have their stories and the people they interview have their stories that need to be told. It’s what we do with our stories and how we tell them that makes the difference.

I encourage all of you to tell your stories as the chapters grow. Realize how your students are paying attention to everything you say and tell them how important they are in your story. Let them know they are hidden stars of lots of stories and they need to pass those stories on.

All too often, I take being a teacher for granted. I have failed to realize the power of our position. We all influence kids whether we know it or not. I think back on my education and distinctly remember two teachers who really had an impact on my life. Susan Smith was my English teacher at Stonewall Jackson High School for two years. I had no idea that she even liked me until after I graduated, but she did. She pushed me to get better at everything I did. I hope I do the same thing for my kids now.

Pat Kelley at Virginia Tech taught me that when you found the thing you were meant to do in life, it wouldn’t be work it would be fun. She was absolutely right. My husband tells me he has never heard of anyone who absolutely loves getting up and going to work every single day. I had never thought about it until he said it, but I do….and I’m glad I do! I can’t imagine being miserable every single day and dreading even going to work.

Being given this honor has made me really do some soul searching. There is so much I need to be doing better as a teacher, so this next year, I’m going to challenge myself to find those hidden stars in my classroom that I’ve often overlooked. I also challenge you to find the hidden stars in your room and give them the star that I’ve given you here today. Let them know their story is important – just as important as the stories they are telling in your publication or production.

I also challenge you to use the skills you teach in your classroom to advance our profession. My students produced a special section for our last edition to tell the stories of people who have been important in my life as a journalism teacher. I underestimated how much folks related to journalism would talk and as a result, we have 50+ stories that couldn’t fit into the print edition but can be found online at Our point is to show how scholastic journalism has such an impact on the lives of everyone involved and hopefully to inspire teachers and students to continue the tradition of telling every person’s story.

Thank you very much and keep telling those stories!