Skalak named LHJH Teacher of the Year

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By ANTHONY FLORES
Staff Writer

A Texas flag hung on the wall in Alicia Skalak’s college apartment, but she wasn’t a Texan. She was born and raised in Centennial, Colorado, and attended college at the University of Wyoming. The only time Skalak visited Texas was during spring break in seventh grade.

“We went to Fredericksburg, San Antonio to see the Alamo, to the Capitol in Austin, and to Corpus Cristi,” Skalak recollected. “We went all over Texas and visited a lot of the historical sites. I fell in love with the history and the area. I thought the people of Texas were warm and welcoming. I loved the Texas culture.”

Skalak’s week-long vacation left a Texas-sized hole in her heart. The vacation planted a seed, a seed that sprouted into her desire to teach Texas history in Texas.

“Ever since that trip, I had fallen in love with Texas. I did several projects on Texas,” said Skalak. “I was fascinated with Texas history. Some college friends thought I was from Texas, but I would say that I love Texas, and I couldn’t wait to move there. All of my friends knew when I graduated, I was going to be looking for a job in Texas.”

Staying true to her aspirations, Skalak’s first job after college was with Taylor Middle School, where she spent six years teaching and coaching. It was on this campus that she worked with current Liberty Hill Junior High Principal Travis Motal.

With an open position to teach Texas history, Motal later reached out to Skalak, bringing the transplanted Texan to LHISD.

Two years later, Skalak stood before her LHJH peers, earning the title of LHJH Teacher of the Year.

“It was very humbling because I was not expecting it at all. Our staff is full of excellent teachers,” said Skalak. “At our professional development, he [Motal] called up all of the teacher of the year nominees and announced who the teacher of the year was.”

For Motal, Skalak’s earning her peers’ votes come as no surprise. Motal has had a front row seat to much of Skalak’s journey.

“Mrs. Skalak is one of the most amazing and humble people I have ever met and had the pleasure of working with. She has a calm and firm demeanor and she can always be counted on to lead with her heart. Mrs. Skalak builds solid and meaningful relationships with students, and parents always appreciate the time and energy she dedicates to them. Liberty Hill ISD and Liberty Hill Junior High are fortunate to have her on our team.”

As the school year marches to a close, Skalak ponders the adjustments she and the staff made in the last 14 months.

“Having to brainstorm new ideas, it’s been a learning curve for all of us — both the teacher and the student,” said Skalak. “We had to teach and learn in new ways with everything going on this school year. I’m thankful for my Texas History team and the planning we put into place to ensure our students were successful, whether they’re learning in person or remotely. We were a team, and we’re all in this together.”

Skalak’s teaching method revolves around establishing a relationship with students and branches out from that point.

“Building relationships is my number one goal as a teacher because I feel like you can’t educate or teach them unless you have a relationship with them,” she said. “It’s my focus point with my students. Checking in with them and asking them how their day is going or about an extracurricular activity. I also try to set high expectations and routines to meet those expectations.”

With a new set of COVID restrictions and many students remote learning, balance was important.

“Once I got that down, it was trying to ensure that I reached those students that weren’t in the classroom,” Skalak said. “Having those conversations to reach them in the same capacity through Zoom as if they were in the classroom. Finding that balance at first was challenging.”

Despite the circumstances, Skalak was still excited to teach some of her favorite sections to her kids.

“I love the Texas Revolution era. The Battle of the Alamo, the Battle of San Jacinto, and the stories that surround them captivated me,” she said. “I especially love when we get to that unit. Not only for the stories. I love showing the kids all of the events leading up to the Texas Revolution and the events of the revolution itself.”

Understanding that the pandemic learning experience is similarly stressful for parents as it is teacher and student, Skalak prioritized keeping parents informed.

“It was constant communication,” she said. “Reaching out and keeping parents up to date with upcoming tests and projects. It was keeping them in the loop and having continual communication on specific assignments or their child’s progress.”

Looking toward next year, Skalak is eager to get back to traditional teaching but plans to keep one or two digital aspects of learning in her classroom.

“Some of our projects that we made digital opened some new doors,” she said. “Especially talking with students through some of the platforms that they’ve used. I might have an idea, but they may be able to take it further with some of the things they’re learning in their computer classes. Keeping some of those digital options would be great moving forward.”

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