Vicki Peake loves nothing more than to see a child’s reaction when, suddenly, something makes sense.
“It’s so rewarding when a student says, ‘I get it now. Thank you for explaining it to me,’” said Peake, who has taught English literature at Valley Middle School for five decades.
“I love their reaction to their success.”
Peake was honored Friday, May 28, for the impact she has made during her 50-year career at the school. At the special event, attended by current and former colleagues and staff members, school district administrators and former students, the admiration and respect many have for her was evident. Several speakers praised her attributes as teacher and friend, and shared fond memories and a few personal stories that elicited laughter from the knowing audience.
A fellow English teacher, Kristin Smith, who spoke during the program, said, “Thank you for touching so many lives.”
Peake received plaques and recognition from Mayor Brandon Bochenski, presented for him by Valley Middle School Principal Todd Selk, and from Superintendent Terry Brenner. She is not retiring, though, and plans to return to the classroom in the fall, Selk said.
In her teaching, Peake “laid a foundation of principles that served kids in 1971 and serves kids in 2021,” Selk said during the program.
Several speakers mentioned how frequently people they met -- mostly former students -- would ask, “Is Mrs. Peake still there?” and add, "She was one of my favorites."
Peake "is a mix of old school and new school,” Selk said in an email to the Herald. “That is what makes her so effective in the classroom. As a veteran teacher she still continues to seek innovative ways to deliver instruction and use best practices. She has also held onto some gold standard practices that serve today’s student as it also served students from the past.
“This is all founded in relationships,” he said. “Plain and simple, she connects with kids. She sets the bar high and works with students to achieve this. She teaches accountability for one’s choices. But because of the foundational relationship she has built with students, most kids want to achieve in her classroom.”
First and only school
Peake started her teaching career at the school, then known as Valley Junior High School. That school is the first and only one where she has taught.
“I never thought of another school,” she said. “I love the school and the staff so much, and never wanted to be anywhere else.”
A native of Dickinson, N.D., Peake joined Valley’s staff soon after graduating from Dickinson State College, now Dickinson State University, where her studies focused on teaching English and speech.
As a teenager, she had wanted to become an archeologist, but went into teaching after learning that Dickinson State did not offer a program in that field. She pursued a teaching career because “I love learning and I love helping people,” she said simply. “I thought that those two things go together.”
Peake came from a family of educators, she said. Her father served as dean of students at Dickinson State for 30 years.
In spring 1971, her then-fiance, Pat Peake accepted a teaching position with Grand Forks Central High School on the condition that there would be a teaching position for her too. A position was created for her, she said. She and Pat married that August.
Connects with students, staff
Not only does she relate well to students, Peake also connects with younger staff members just as readily as she does with older staff members, said Selk.
Another colleague, Lisa Vojacek, who has worked at Valley for 15 years, most recently as a mentor for teachers, said: “From the first day I started here, Vicki has provided me with a sense of stability, purpose and promise. She goes out of her way to build up teachers and students alike. She is firm, but she is fair. She is flexible, willing and invested in this profession.
“One of the things I appreciate most about Vicki is her ability to connect with students,” Vojacek said. “Kids smile as they say her name. They know that she will provide a safe and engaging learning environment for them -- one where they will be challenged, celebrated, held accountable and cherished.”
Selk also admires Peake’s willingness to embrace new technology and explore new methods of teaching. She continues to learn, refusing to become set in her ways, he said.
“At first, I was intimidated by technology,” Peake said, “but I thought, technology is here to stay and I better get with the program.” Younger staff members, who are more familiar with technology, helped her, she said.
“The whole staff here is very helpful. You won’t find a better staff in Grand Forks.”
She, in turn, has helped young teachers too, responding to requests for information or advice and, if they teach in her field, sharing teaching materials with them.
‘Kids are basically good’
When asked if students have changed over the past 50 years, Peake said, “I don’t think kids have changed. Kids are basically good. They sometimes make bad decisions.”
She has noticed, though, that students seem to be “more frank when they talk,” she said.
“I spend a lot of time in my class talking about respect,” she said. She tells students that if they show respect for themselves, their books and others, “everything else falls into place.”
“I just love the kids,” Peake said. “You get some tough ones, and I try to help them too.”
She enjoys interacting with middle school-age students; they are in sixth through eighth grade.
“It’s a fun age. They’ll tell you what’s on their minds,” she said. “I’ve taught eighth grade, but seventh is my favorite.”
Her students are “pretty honest,” she said, “and I like that about them.”
“Some are brutally honest,” she said. “Some are really needy and just need a hug.”
It has been her practice to ask students, at the start of a course, how much they read -- a lot, some or not much, she said. “A lot of them don’t like to read -- I think that’s the influence of electronics.” Some students prefer to interact with a device, rather than read a book.
Peake wants her students to leave her class “with a love of reading,” she said. “That’s a goal of mine always.”
For the past 50 years, she has been a pillar of the community that is Valley Middle School.
Peake “is a wonderful colleague,” Selk said. “Her love of Valley and our staff is immeasurable. Our staff love her back. Her loyalty is unmatched, and she will go out of her way to challenge the thinking of outsiders who have a less favorable opinion of Valley.”
“Vicki Peake represents all that is good at Valley,” he said. “She is Valley.”