If you can smell the strong scents of pumpkin spice or vanilla when walking down the hallways of Valparaiso High School, you know that Gail Mooney, our next Valpo Life in the Spotlight, is working. With her Rolling Stones posters hanging on the ceiling, candles and incense burning on her desk and students sitting in bean bag chairs, one could say that Mooney has an unorthodox way of teaching.
“I don't want the classroom to smell like a classroom,” she explained.
Mooney attended Central Michigan University with a major in Special Education. She then got her Master’s at Michigan State. She's been teaching alternative education since 1996, where she started at the Porter County Career & Technical Center and moved to VHS in 2005.
“I always thought I could reach kids in a way that's different than that of a normal teacher. Sometimes you have to think out of the box because they shut down to traditional methods.”
As an alternative education teacher, Mooney has students who have experienced hardships many of us never have. One of the projects she has done is helping the homeless in Valparaiso.
“If you're hurting and you can help others, it helps you feel good inside. So for these alternative kids, they feel better when they give back,” she explained. “We're collecting clothes for the homeless and we used to make fleece blankets for the Hill Top House. One of my past students is now homeless and my one goal is to see if he remembers me and to give him some socks.”
Even though her methods are often nontraditional, Mooney still has an orderly, academics-based classroom. All of the students create their own schedule from the ten subjects that she teaches so they can best arrange their subjects to help them pass.
“My students are only here for two hours and fifteen minutes each day, and they know they need to keep moving.”
Every six weeks, the Principal of VHS and Mooney sit down with each student individually and discuss his or her progress, what he or she needs to improve and what he or she is excelling in.
“I try to keep things light,” she said. “I want the kids to know that I care and that they're successful because some haven't been told that and that isn't cool. I never yell; I use constructive discipline and they respect that.”
Mooney's favorite part of teaching alternative education is the connection she makes with her students. Every two weeks, the alternative students participate in an activity called 'Family,' where they get together and praise each other for their accomplishments, participate in fun raffles and receive seasonal gifts."
“I like to motivate them with awards and comments to help their self-esteem and by encouraging students to motivate each other,” she said.
Mooney loves helping them share her students’ stories with the community, to help others who are like them. As a member of both The Arc and Leadership Northwest Indiana, she takes students to tell their stories, always to a fantastic response. One memorable response, she recalled, was when a business owner gave a jobless mother a business card and told her to schedule an interview.
“We're helping change lives here,” she gushed. “I can connect with these students. I can tell when something is wrong and I can help. Kids say things like 'You aren't a typical teacher; you are someone I can talk to.' You have to listen to them; they're here for a reason. I start every day fresh. I could stay here until five every night; here is where my focus is. It's still so fun getting ready for the next day.”
Mooney is also a massive fan of Valparaiso. She moved here in 1995, and since has been infatuated by the Downtown, the Popcorn Fest and the city as a whole.
“Be proud of your community; it's going nowhere but up. It's getting better and better. Restaurants, parks, artwork; it's gorgeous. I love the Popcorn Fest and the live Nativity Scene at Christmas. This is an awesome place to live.”
As a teacher who truly connects with her students, goes out of the way to help those less fortunate and still finds joy in her job, Gail Mooney is truly a Valpo Life in the Spotlight.