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Retired Teacher “Mama Val” Remembers Rosewood Elementary School

Retired Physical Education teacher Ms. Valerie Fair Mickel is lovingly known around Rosewood Elementary School as “Mama Val,” but she remembers when she considered herself the “baby” of the school when she first started in 1984. Recalling a day over 36 years ago might be difficult for some, but Ms. Mickel has a clear memory of that time. “Oh yes, I remember my first day. I remember my first week,” she said, “My first day was nervous, the first day was scary; but the teachers here at Rosewood were so loving and patient. They helped me a lot, and I still consider them family. And they will be forever.”

Although Ms. Mickel retired last year, she couldn’t stay away from Rosewood Elementary for long. “It was one of the hardest decisions to retire,” she said, “I loved the children and I loved being here.” When Principal Deborah Greenwood asked if she would be interested in coming back to tutor for the 2020 -2021 school year, there was no hesitation in her acceptance. Ms. Mickel now tutors second grade students in the subjects of reading and math. Although there was no hesitation in her decision to return, she wondered how enthusiastic students would be to learn reading and math from her. “I used to teach PE and everyone loves PE,” she said, “But I walk into that second grade classroom, and these students really want to learn. When you see a child that says I want to get it, I want to read… can you teach me to read? Well, that just makes me so happy that these children truly want to learn with me.”

Originally from New York, Ms. Mickel came to the South to live with her grandma when she was a teenager. She graduated from Rock Hill High School in 1979 and later went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Winthrop College. Not certain she wanted a life in education, she states that she initially “ran from” this career choice. It took a special moment at a Hornets game that changed her mind and ultimately knew it was her calling.

“I was by myself at a Hornets game,” Ms. Mickel tells of the life-changing moment, “I was cheering, quite loudly, and this little girl came over from out of the blue and sat on my lap.” Ms. Mickel looked over to where the girl wandered from, nodded to the father, and the two continued to cheer on the Hornets together. It was the sign she needed and just knew that it was time to give into her gift. “Ever since then, I accepted children are drawn to me,” Ms. Mickel said. 

Ms. Mickel had been the physical education teacher at Rosewood for 36 years and she had seen not only the progression of the PE program but the physical changes of the building that has occurred over the years. The art, music, and physical education wing of the building did not exist when Ms. Mickel started her journey at Rosewood. “I started in a little classroom,” she said, “I migrated from one hall to another and at one point we had so many children in the school, my classroom was the stage. It was interesting, but I made it work.” After that, the art, music, and physical education wing was created along with the kindergarten hallway. “I still feel proud after 20 years later,” Ms. Mickel said of that wing, “That part of the building still makes me proud even though the design has changed. I was one of the first to teach in that room.” There have only been 3 physical education teachers in the history of Rosewood. 

Ms. Mickel was a mix of ‘old-school’ and ‘new-school’ when it came to her teachings in the PE classroom.  “When I was a kid in elementary school in New York, I played a game in my gym class that was so fun,” she said, “I had taught that same exact game in my classes every single year to every single child.” All her students loved the game as much as she did.  Even though she kept some of the same activities throughout her career, she acknowledges that learning had changed. “When I first started, I was that dictator teacher who stood in the front of the classroom,” she said, “Whereas, teaching nowadays, it’s more about letting the kids take ownership of their learning. It is more student-directed. It took me a while to get there because I was so used to being in control… and I shifted to letting the kids have a little more control with a happy medium, of course.”

Rosewood Elementary School eventually became an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme school, and Ms. Mickel self-admittedly was a little stubborn at first to accept physical education’s involvement in it. But she quickly saw first-hand how the IB program helped kids take ownership of their learning and grades. “It did my heart well,” Ms. Mickel said of PE’s involvement in the IB program, “I started incorporating IB into PE through movement and books. I would have a book that connected to the movement that we were doing in the classroom. If I didn’t bring out a book, the children would ask where’s our character for the day or what’s our word of the day; they would question where it was. I loved to see the way PE connected to the classrooms.” Ms. Mickel was proud of the physical education involvement in IB at Rosewood.

About 17 years ago, the fifth grade yearly Exhibition was started, and Ms. Mickel accounts that as some of her proudest moments. The Exhibition is a capstone for fifth graders to showcase different areas of learning – art, music, technology, research. Every year, Ms. Mickel guided the movement performance of the Exhibition. “I can remember pretty much all of them,” she said, “One year I had about fifty students wanting to be a part of my movement group. I thought I could weed some out by keeping strict rules, but not one student played around during rehearsals. They all came in serious and wanting to learn.” All fifty students earned a spot in the performance.

“I feel like my job as a PE teacher, I was able to direct all areas of their life,” Ms. Mickel said of the importance of teachers in student’s lives, “I want them to know we all have hard times, and we get through it. Be who you are and be yourself. I teach these children to love themselves and that they are special.” She wants children to learn more than just classroom subjects and lessons from books: “I teach them that they won’t always fit in as a person and that’s hard to learn as a kid… but you aren’t supposed to fit in.”

“Mama Val” wants to ensure all the children feel loved; but she also wants the same for teachers, especially the new ones. “I always let the new teachers know there is somebody here on your side,” she said, “I open myself up to them. I let them know I am their friend; I can be their family. I offer help, I show them lesson plans. Anything to make them feel comfortable and welcomed.”

After Rosewood Elementary closes its doors for the last time, this retiree will not be sitting still. “I have a dream to take my love for movement a little bit further, and I want to create a community project,” Ms. Mickel said for her future, “It’s a big dream that is filling my heart. I want to introduce dance to the Rock Hill community to children who are not as fortunate to get ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, and all the forms of dance. I want to open up a community outlet to give these children the opportunity.”

Ms. Mickel will also be teaching swim lessons at the YMCA to infants as well as adults, which she has done for the past 30 years.  She will be teaching a class at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’ll be a PE class, of course!” she said.  “I am excited about this new move. I am new to teaching at a college so I’m a tad nervous. And I am finishing up my doctoral degree too.” Even though Rosewood is closing, she will still be making an impact on the community.

“How do I hope people will remember Rosewood?” Ms. Mickel paused for a long time, “Just by all the great things that have come through. I remember all the hard-working teachers that wanted to get the children to a certain point. I want them to remember the caring teachers, the principals, the ground, the workspace, the building. Just everything. I know I will.”


Ms. Mickel