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On Island Profile: Valrica Bryson

May 6, 2007 — Valrica Bryson is busy talking on her cell phone as she walks around the St. Croix Educational Complex field with a group of young men and women in tow.
Some are her co-educators and colleagues. Others are her students, some former. They all brave the afternoon sun to help with various functions, such as pleating bright orange-and-yellow madras fabric for stage decor. Bryson's music students are set to play with Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Nights that evening, part of her effort to bring culture such as quadrille dancing and Quelbe music back into the island's schools. The efforts to help Bryson prepare for the concert are a testament to the respect she commands.
Bryson nurtures students in more than just academia, and her dedication and commitment did not go unnoticed by Complex Principal Kurt Vialet, who nominated her for St. Croix School District Teacher of the Year. She won hands down, and that award propelled her to 2007 state teacher of the year.
A music educator for 20 years, Bryson, 44, says that the recognition as the territory's top teacher is one that she both relishes and questions. To hear her tell it, she might as well be invisible.
"This is a recognition that says I am a well-trained, dedicated, caring, enthusiastic and innovative teacher," Bryson says in between directing her stage assistants. "Yet after the award was given, everything simply stopped. I want things to change — for people to realize the importance of teachers."
Bryson has unilaterally decided to use her year's reign to push for more recognition of teachers locally, especially those who receive state teacher of the year recognition.
Much like the Carnival Queen reigns over Carnival, she says, the state teacher of the year ought to be given a role fitting of the recognition.
"It can be something as simple as using that person to talk about education at luncheons and other activities," Bryson says. "Don't select me as the teacher of the year and say, 'You're the teacher of the year,' and it ends there."
Vialet told Bryson that it was about time she was recognized, Bryson recalls while ducking for shade in her dark-blue SUV, which is parked on the grassy field near the stage. She recently got back on island after attending the National Teacher of the Year conference. Bryson's longtime friend Lurlene Gerard was the St. Thomas District teacher of the year. The two also served together in the V.I. National Guard's 73rd Army Band.
As part of her reign, Bryson met last month at the White House with President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, and says it was an honor to meet the first couple as well the other state teachers of the year. Some of the other state teachers attended state-sponsored functions and had everything from business cards, cars and monetary donations of up to $10,000 given to them, she says.
"I sat down on my computer and made my own business cards," she says. Bryson is quick to add, however, that she's not looking for a barrage of gifts and donations, but for the recognition all teachers deserve.
"It's not just about what you teach in the classroom but how flexible you are to what happens in the classroom," she says. "If that doesn't happen, you will fail students. If you're a real teacher, you cannot just sign in and get a paycheck. You have to flip roles. One day a student can come to school upset, and you have to stop what you're doing and say, 'Hey, come talk to me.' You have to be a parent figure, you cannot just be a teacher."
As she speaks, a young man walks up with yards and yards of madras fabric that he helped to pleat. Kevre Hendricks is a former student who graduated in 1998. He is now in his third year as band director at Arthur A. Richards Junior High School. It is enough to make Bryson proud. She taught Hendricks music since the seventh grade.
"I am wherever she is, because she inspires me to be the best I can be," Hendricks says. "She's more of a parental figure, a guiding light to a lot of her students, so we don't mind helping her. Her tough love and parental role in so many aspects of our lives is the reason I am where I am today."
Because of Bryson's nurturing, Hendricks added, "I found out I was decent in music."
Bryson quickly interrupts: "No. No, you were not decent. You were awesome. You just didn't believe in yourself, and I had to make you see that you were awesome."
"See what I mean?" Hendricks says with a smile. "Okay, I was awesome! Look where it got me."
That tough love isn't always reserved for students. Bryson had run-ins with the Education Department when she published a photo of the empty band room at Complex. When she was hired at Educational Complex in the fall of 1995, Bryson says, she met a band room with no equipment.
"I was getting paid to teach music, but there was nothing to teach with," she says. So by December, she took what she said was a "bold step" and had the picture published and asked for the community's help in securing band equipment.
"I nearly got fired and was written up, but it was worth it because in a matter of months we got money for equipment," she says.
Once the equipment was in place, Bryson embarked on getting a concert band in place. Since that time, she has started a jazz band, a steel ensemble, a quelbe band and the complex's own Fusion Band. The smaller bands all derive from the concert band, she says.
In addition to her teaching and mentoring duties, Bryson serves on Complex's school-improvement team and has served as the Middle States Association Accreditation team chairperson since 2002. Other accolades include the V.I. Community Involvement Award for the years 1999, 2002 and 2004.
A member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Bryson says she originally went to college to study for a degree in computers but that members of her college concert band encouraged her to change her major to music. The rest, as they say, is history. The love of music runs so deep that her only child, daughter Chantal Harrigan, sings with Fusion Band, a popular mainstay during the Crucian Christmas Festival and local entertainment scene.
Bryson says that Harrigan, who attended complex, is now a voice major at the University of the Virgin Islands and that she, too, may one day teach.
"And she will already know how to teach," Bryson says proudly.
Meanwhile, Bryson is calling on all former state teacher of the year recipients, to join with her to push for more recognition of teachers. She can be reached by calling 719-3582.
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