By Chuck Wasserstrom
It’s not often that a student can say his or her biggest cheerleader in college was, in fact, a cheerleader.
But there might not be a bigger academic or athletic supporter on the UTC campus than Dr. Valerie Rutledge, Dean of the university’s College of Health, Education and Professional Studies.
Want proof? This spring, UTC’s athletic department continued its yearly tradition of celebrating student-athletes with the sixth annual Coca-Cola Scrappy Awards. The award ceremony was held at the Tivoli Theater in downtown Chattanooga and recognized achievements in the classroom, in competition and in the community. Awards included Play of the Year, Victory of the Year, Newcomer of the Year and Student-Athletes of the Year. And taking home the prize of Professor of the Year was Rutledge – a Mocs cheerleader during her undergraduate days.
“There is still no bigger cheerleader for the university than Valerie,” said Jayne Holder, UTC’s assistant vice chancellor for alumni affairs. “She is at every sporting event. She’s a huge wrestling fan. She’s at all the football games, all the basketball games. It’s not just in her college that you see her; she’s everywhere.
“It’s wonderful to have people who truly care about the university, and she does it with her whole heart. We have a group that gets together a couple times a year – we all went to school together – and we’ve all been very proud of Valerie and what she has done here at UTC. She’s represented us all very well.”
Rutledge grew up in Chattanooga and attended Tyner High School – about 10 miles east of her present-day office at Hunter Hall. She said she knew early on in life that teaching was in her blood.
“UTC provided an opportunity for me,” said Rutledge, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the university in 1974 and her master’s degree in 1979 – both in Secondary Education: English. “There was the understanding from my parents that I was expected to go to college. The challenge was going to be … Where was I going to college? Was it going to be affordable? UTC did have the element of offering me affordability and accessibility. But it also offered me what I wanted – which was an education degree. And I’ve been lucky enough since I was very young to know that’s what I wanted to do. That has never changed.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
After her UTC undergraduate days, Rutledge worked in the Hamilton County school system for 21 years – teaching English, Latin, and Drama. She began her career as a middle school teacher, and after four years, she moved on to the high school level. Eventually, she began teaching adjunct for UTC’s College of Education (at that point, it was called the Department of Teacher Preparation Academy).
Along the way, she raised a family (Valerie and her husband, Jack, have three children, four grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter) and continued her own educational development – receiving her doctoral degree in Higher Education: Leadership Studies from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
“At the time, I really did that just for me,” she said. “I didn’t start out with the thought, ‘Would I end up in Higher Ed?’ But things worked out and allowed me the chance to do that.
“When I first started teaching adjunct, I enjoyed it; it was related to the things I was doing in my professional career. An opportunity came for an opening that fit my skill set – an opening for a person in Secondary Education: English who would teach literacy classes and methods classes. I interviewed and was selected and joined the faculty here in 1995.
“As the program evolved and grew, I had the chance to advance from assistant professor up to Director of the School of Education and ultimately Dean of the College. I am truly invested.”
Rutledge pointed to a pair of UTC educators who steered her on the right path professionally.
“I had a lot of really positive teachers and a lot of really good role models, and I hope every student leaves here with a connection with someone who convinced them that they could be really good at whatever it was they chose to do,” she said. “Tom Ware, who was one of my professors in English, convinced me that I was in the right area – and allowed me to develop my own ideas. He explained to me how those were relevant, and how important it was that I am able to think besides just finding the right answer. I then began thinking how I wanted to share that with students.
“One of my earliest professors was Dr. Bill Hales, who was my advisor all the way from the time I entered as a freshman until the time I finished my graduate degree; he was the person who advised all the Secondary Education: English majors. When I finished my master’s degree, he was the one who said to me, ‘Now you need to be thinking about a doctoral degree.’ It wasn’t even on my radar screen, but as I moved through my profession I thought back to that several times and finally thought, ‘Well, why not.’ If I stayed in the classroom, it gave me the chance to enhance my skills. If I moved into another field – and it turned out to be prophetic – it was something that I would need to be able to function in that other setting, which is where I find myself now.”
Rutledge said that being a teacher means caring enough about other people to help them decide what they would like to do – and how to achieve success.
“I still teach, because that’s an important part of who I am,” she said. “My role is to help students and faculty understand their potential for success and to give them the kind of guidance and support that points them in the right direction. Seeing the difference you can make for a student … working alongside a faculty member who has a lot of potential but maybe hasn’t recognized that … being the person who can support someone to do something that enhances not just their career but also the reputation of their program – and then, by connection, our institution. Part of what we’re always trying to do for students is helping them understand how capable they truly are.
“If I came here as a student and I was in a position where I didn’t connect with someone, I may not have that opportunity or I may not have that support to help me understand that I am much more capable than perhaps I ever thought. So if we can connect with our students in ways that show them they have a lot of potential, we have taken a giant step toward making their futures different.”
The field of teaching has changed dramatically since the time Rutledge was a student. To that end, this past school year, the School of Education teamed up with the Hamilton County Department of Education to partner UTC students with accomplished teacher-mentors.
“It’s a very different profession from when I first started out,” Rutledge said. “There have been what I would call significant advances that have changed the field of education. One of the biggest was the recognition that students have varying levels of abilities. We used to think years ago that you would provide an individualized program for a student who had an identified area with which he or she needed help. Now, I think we understand that there are variations that every student might bring. So you need to be prepared to think about those and how you might change the way you teach so that every student has a chance to be successful.
“At the same time, the reality of it is … we are all aware that all professions are changing very rapidly, and education is one of those. Some of the challenges that come along with being an educator are how do you learn to survive in a setting that involves students that come from very different backgrounds. Even in the same school in the same community, you have students that come from very different personal experiences. As a student who wants to go into a classroom and be there for a professional career, the best thing we can do for that student is to sit down and help them understand you’re going to encounter students with all different perspectives on life. We want you to have the experience to watch those things unfold in your placement experiences, so when you get into your own classroom, you’ll feel that you’ve been well-prepared.
“I think one of the biggest challenges for any new teacher is to learn how to manage. I don’t mean discipline; I mean manage all the different aspects of the classroom. Everything from ‘How do I organize my lessons?’ to ‘How do I deal with unexpected changes that might take place?’ to ‘How do I work alongside students that don’t have the same focus that I think they ought to have?’ We’re trying to give our students as many tools as possible to make them ready to move into a classroom and be successful from that very first day.
“We’re shifting from the older model, which is you have some field placements – but they’re not as connected and extensive – to a model that says, ‘We’re going to give you the opportunity to be in a school for the equivalent of a full academic year so you see what it’s like from the start of a school year.’ You see what it’s like to organize your classroom. You understand the various kinds of activities that are connected with the schools and whatever level you plan to teach. You’ve met with parents. You’ve supported students in doing extracurricular activities. You just understand more completely what your role as a teacher might involve and how you might incorporate that into your own profession.”
Rutledge was asked to take off her educator cap and think solely as an alumnus of UTC. What can supportive graduates give back to their alma mater?
“Part of what we are is a sense of the history of the institution,” she said. “I think that’s a value that every alum brings. I came here right after we became UTC – so I was not a part of the University of Chattanooga – but I do know it occupied a very significant and important place in the history of our community. Since that time, I’ve watched how important those traditions and histories were; they were an early part of our institution. Now, we’ve cultivated new ones over a period of time, and we can pass those traditions along to the students that are joining us now.
“In my undergraduate career, I was a cheerleader – and I never got over that. I still love it. I was in the Singing Mocs and the Chamber Singers and in a sorority that was a great networking experience for me. All of those experiences shaped my time at UTC – and gave me a perspective on how a positive experience can change the direction of your life.
“And you know what … if you could take a picture of me today, I’m still dressed in blue and gold.”