Voices From Here: Teacher Virginia Rehberg Draws Political Inspiration From Her Students | KNKX

Voices From Here: Teacher Virginia Rehberg Draws Political Inspiration From Her Students

Oct 25, 2016

Virginia Rehberg is a science teacher at Tacoma’s Wilson High School, and she has been for the last two decades. But her focus during this election is actually outside the classroom.

Several words come to mind when describing Virginia Rehberg: passionate, curious, mother, educator, and opinionated. Fiercely so.


“I’m not always the most forgiving for people’s opinions that are different than mine. Because I think that as a baseline, we have to take care of everyone," she said. "And if your ideals aren’t about taking care of people, I don’t understand your frame of reference.”


This isn’t new. She’s always had certain expectations of others. And she’s always felt like an adult, even as a kid growing up in Newport, Wash., which is in the eastern part of the state. Rehberg was raised by parents she lovingly refers to as “hippies.”


“My parents talked to me about everything, and my opinion mattered, and they questioned me. They definitely didn’t impose who I needed to be,” she said.


Rehberg grew up poor. Her parents were both high school dropouts. But she says they valued knowledge and intelligence. Early on, she wanted something more for herself, so she set her mind on going to college and eventually becoming an educator.


Helping Kids Who Struggle


Rehberg has been at Wilson High School now for 20 years and has biology courses with freshman, honors courses in environmental science with juniors and seniors, and has also taught marine biology and earth science. She demands a lot from her students, mostly because, she says, she demands a lot from herself. Rehberg is also a faculty advisor for the gay-straight alliance at the high school.


“So I think I have a soft spot in my heart for a lot of things. And one of them: kids who struggle, in general. Kids who come from struggling backgrounds, who you can tell, obviously, everybody wants to try to lift those kids up," Rehberg said. "But I also have just a big heart for kids who are silenced or oppressed by things. And there’s lot of things, whether that’s poverty, or in the case of my gay-straight alliance students, about their gender identity or their sexuality.”


Helping the kids who struggle, and ensuring they have all they need to walk into her classroom, ready to perform and learn, that’s crucial.


Wilson High School has a population of a little more than 1,200 students. It has a majority white population, but about 17 percent of the students are black. Almost 8 percent are Asian. The number of low-income students is relatively high at 41 percent. But the school graduates 94 percent of its kids after four years, which is substantially higher than the statewide average of 77 percent.


"I'm Being a 'Hillary Clinton'"


Rehberg shares in this success and has spent the last 20 years taking care of these kids. And she cares about their families, too, and making sure they have a solid home life. She’s been inspired by Hillary Clinton over the years, and when it comes to voicing her opinions on issues involving social justice. Rehberg is, without a doubt, a Clinton supporter.


“I would call myself a feminist and she represents everything that I hold true as a feminist. I’m used to being the loud voice in the room. And I’m used to not stepping down when the boys want to talk over me. I have this phrase that I say with my friends: ‘That’s being a Hillary Clinton. I’m being a Hillary Clinton,’” Rehberg said.


But it’s not just social concerns. Rehberg says she’d like to a federal push for national standards for education. Why can’t kids in Texas learn the same things kids in Washington state are learning?


“It bums me out a little bit that you can’t impose those. I think that they should be mandated and that states shouldn’t get to choose. And I think that that has to be assessed in order to assess progress. But I think that the assessment should be a federal assessment. Not a statewide assessment,” said Rehberg.


She’s especially tied to the idea of national standards because of her own distinction as a National Board Certified Teacher. The certification process is a voluntary, advanced teaching credential that goes beyond state licensure. It’s also a rigorous one. As for the funding battle happening right now in the courts and the legislature, Rehberg says, yes, the state needs to fund education and support teacher training. But at the end of the day, it’s about each and every one of her students.


“So would I love to infect the world with this idea of standards-focused education? Absolutely," she said. "But right now, I just gotta get one person at a time.”


Room For All Opinions


Rehberg is an optimist when it comes to the greater good. But don’t get the wrong idea, she calls herself a “realist” at heart. And that’s why she says she’s rooting for Clinton. Rehberg is confident Clinton can get results if elected. And while she cheers her candidate on, Rehberg says she’s been noticing a troubling trend, which is something she calls “unconscious anti-woman sentiment.”


“I’m not going to apologize for taking up space in this room. And I’m not going to apologize to people who don’t take up space," said Rehberg. "I think that’s almost the bigger issue, the people who think they can’t step forward. My taking up space doesn’t stop you from taking up space, and you have to step to the table and put your opinion forward. And often, I find interacting with people, if I know someone who doesn’t speak up, or if I know someone who feels like they can’t talk over people because they keep getting cut off, I’ll often say, ‘So-and-so has something to say.’ I’ll use my big voice to bring them to the table.”


It’s that kind of attitude she uses in conversations with students. Rehberg says she wants her kids to share their points of view with her and their fellow classmates, political or not. She says she thrives on those interactions.


“Like, I have passion for an issue. But I’m never going to be black. I’m never going to be gay. I have a passion for equality, and that matters to me," she said. "But they have perspective that I do not know. And that I can listen to, and I can really think about, but they’re living those positions.”


Rehberg says if only that type of listening could be happening more often during this election cycle.