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Valley High School Alumnus, Military Veteran Shares Life Lessons With Students

December 10, 2014
Matthew Dierking

Matthew Dierking

At times, sometimes overlooked, a Principal’s Secretary is vital to the everyday operations of a successful school site. In this specific case, it helped to yield a fascinating opportunity to witness the return of a Valley High School graduate. And, it speaks to the willingness of a Certificated Staff member to invite a student back into his former classroom. Earlier this summer, profiled Mr. Matthew Dierking, as he concludes his studies at Las Positas College. As a veteran of both the U.S. Army and Navy, he is seeking to accomplish his goal of attaining an undergraduate degree – and perhaps more. After many personal and professional life experiences, he returned to the Valley High School campus to simply retrieve his transcripts. This chance meeting led to this profile.

By his own admission, Matthew had made some “dumb” choices while enrolled within the Dublin Unified School District. As a student at Dublin High School, these mistakes led him to be transferred to Valley High School to complete his high school diploma. In hindsight, it was the best possible destination for him. Subsequently, he completed two successful tours in the military – including time spent in Iraq driving a truck across this country. Upon his return, he refocused all of his energies in order to accomplish his academic goals. It began at Las Positas College. During this time, he has also committed numerous volunteer hours to the Veterans Resource Center. His objective has been to assist fellow Veterans to navigate the federal support system – the same system that has helped him to reach this point.

Based upon an invitation by VHS, we are pleased to share Mr. Kierking’s successful return to Valley High School and to share what he experienced with current students. You were very candid about your life experiences – both as a student and in the military.  What messages were you trying to convey to the students? 

Matthew Dierking: “My candor initially was to establish my “bad boy” credibility. Honestly, I wanted the students to know that I had done things and that I had experienced similar things that they were going through. I was never going to reach them without them knowing that I wasn’t at Valley just because I didn’t do my homework. Which also led to the effectiveness of the discussion because the things that I have done to improve my life, the things that I have overcome, and the places and things that I have seen are better colored because of my past. My further goal was to “de-stigmatize” Valley, that there is life after Valley and that their experience at Valley could be very positive and could benefit them in the future rather than hold them back.” You referenced Guy Kawasaki as a perfect representation of an evangelist – in this example as one for Apple.  One of your goals is to become an evangelist for Veterans.  Please explain why this is so important to you. 

Matthew Dierking speaking with VHS students

Matthew Dierking speaking with VHS students

Dierking: “A lot of the Veterans that are hurting the worst have a tough time using their voice. I learned a lot of people in the military have a tough time using their voice. When I was a Sergeant in the Army and I had to take care of soldiers, I never took “no” for an answer because I knew I was getting out of the military – so no matter what they did when I defied or challenged my superiors, I got people taken care of. The culture of the military is for an answer to be not be too long before an answer is “yes.” So when soldiers need things to take care of themselves, they generally conflict with the mission because it takes away from training and operational time. These problems could be anything from counseling, to rehab, to physical therapy from a prior injury, time off to take care of spouses and children when they are sick. Getting their education and even some having jobs outside of the military for extra income.

“So the problem was that a lot of times people needed to be taken care of first, and they could better take care of the mission. All these things take time away from the “mission” assigned by the chain of command, and commanders and senior enlisted can be very mission-centric. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is of course how our military is so effective, to get the mission done first, then take care of people. Also, sometimes a “no” is the best answer. The problem is that the soldiers might not understand why they are told “no” and superiors don’t like to explain themselves. That’s where I came in.  As a Sergeant you are considered to be a non-commissioned officer and, as such, you have two tasks as learned through the NCO creed” Of the many features of Valley High School, you pointed out the uniqueness of smaller classroom sizes – much like at some of the premiere academic institutions in the United States.  Describe how this opportunity should not be lost on students at Valley High School.

Dierking: “It’s not just the small classroom sizes, it’s the fact that the culture of Valley is similar in the fact that the faculty can and generally does get more emotionally tied into their students. The teachers at Valley become invaluable partners and resources because you can bring anything to them and they will help. While you can find these kind of people at larger institutions, the culture at larger institutions doesn’t facilitate those kind of relationships between faculty and students. It is especially unique to find that culture in high schools. Hollywood portrays these kind of teachers as one-in-a-million and pariahs that’s what makes those stories effective on screen. But the culture at Valley from the principal down to what appeared to be security personnel was one of emotional investment. Also there are generally a lot of problems at home whether created by them and their choices, or because they live in troubled homes so these problems can give them passion to help others if they channel it properly; then they can creatively craft their vocations. While you are pursuing your undergraduate degree, you also continue to volunteer your time at the Veterans Resource Center at Las Positas College.  In the process of unraveling the “red tape” that you’ve encountered in terms of the military support system, how have you assisted other students/veterans with this process?

Todd Steffan with Matthew Dierking

Todd Steffan with Matthew Dierking

Dierking: “Mostly I’ve helped Veterans get their education benefits directly. I’ve helped a lot indirectly by simply being there. Vets open up to other Vets, so when you spend a lot of time at the resource center we have conversations or they open up to you which gives me the ability to try to get them connected to other resources. We talk about mental health, health issues, money, homelessness, sometimes PTSD and drugs. You get a chance to talk to these Vets and help them find the resources that they need. You “unravel the red tape” through being a point of contact that navigates the world of benefits if that makes sense. If you have navigated the system then you have specialized knowledge. Working in a resource center and having someone like Todd Steffan, who has worked with literally thousands of Vets then you get to circumnavigate the red tape because Todd knows the right people to call that will get things done rather than sending them to the faceless machine. Networking is the most crucial part of getting rid of the red tape.”

So, as it all worked out, Matthew negotiated with the Valley High School staff to set a schedule so that he may spend virtually an entire Friday in Laurie Sargent’s four English sections. Ms. Sargent attained a B.A. in Communication Arts from the University of San Francisco. Subsequently, she achieved a Single Subject Credential in English from California State University, Stanislaus. After teaching in the Central Valley, she has served as a Core Teacher at Wells Middle School and for the past eight years, she has taught Junior and Senior English at Valley High School. We reached out to Laurie to gain her observations on Mr. Dierking’s recent tenure in her classroom. Explain how Mr. Dierking was granted an opportunity to speak to your English classes.

Matthew Dierking with Laurie Sargent

Matthew Dierking with Laurie Sargent

Laurie Sargent: “Matthew came to Valley High School to pick up a copy of his high school transcript. He spoke with our school secretary, Lorie Strelo. She asked him if he would be interested in talking with our current students about his VHS experience and where is today! He gave Lorie his contact information and I called him. He was open to speaking to my classes, so we arranged a date!” Please comment on some the “larger” messages that Matthew was imparting to your students. How did you feel that your students responded?

Sargent: “Some of the primary themes included: Just that you attend Valley doesn’t mean that you cannot be successful. VHS doesn’t make you and high school doesn’t define you, choose to make your own life’s story. Volunteering and giving back to our community is important. Everyone takes a different path to reach success. Design a plan for your future. And, stay in school, it is the key to success.” Less than a year ago, Valley High School was named a Model Continuation School. Help our readers to understand how and why VHS was deserving of this type of recognition.

Sargent: “The school site applies to receive this honor. The criteria are not solely based upon academics alone, but it is a large part. It requires presenting data, narrative statements from VHS stakeholders, site visits from an evaluating committee, among other requirements.” From our observations over the years, It would seem that every student at VHS has a rather intriguing story. As opposed to the traditional high school setting, try to articulate how the teacher/student relationship is very different at Valley High.

Laurie offered comments from her fellow colleagues to answer this question:

Melissa Fields, Science Teacher: “Teachers are able to meet student needs in such a deeper way; working with students one on one, in small groups, etc. Students are able to connect with teachers, not just about subject specific curriculum, but all aspects of their lives, if they choose.”

Debora Saint James, World History & Art Teacher: “For me, the opportunity to really get to know the students is a crucial part of what makes Valley so special. This is just not possible when there are 32-34 students in a class and a teacher has 5 or 6 classes a day. The teachers at Valley really care about the students, and the students also have the opportunity to get to know the teachers on a very personal level.”

Jon Michelle Cornish, English Teacher: “I know that I have talked to students and am able to form basic relationships with them even if they aren’t in my class. I think that, in part, gives students a real sense of community and confidence in being able to interact with adults and form some basic relationships with them. Also, since this is a time when often they are trying to fit in and are forming opinions and sometimes pushing boundaries, I think the fact that there is little–I don’t know students are often given some place to feel accepted and okay with themselves where they may not have that feeling with their peers or family.”

Chris Williams, Mathematics Teacher: “The teacher-student relationship at Valley High School is a unique one in that with the smaller class sizes, it allows the teachers to develop more of a positive educational and personal relationship with the students, which helps with their growth and confidence within their academics that they may not have received in much larger class sizes.”

Sargent: “The Valley High students and staff are family.Every student can find at least one staff member to build a strong relationship with during the course of his/her studies. Not every student fits in at a traditional academic setting. We need alternatives to meet the needs of ALL types of learners. We set high expectations, we believe in them, even when they have self-doubt. We never give up on them, even when they don’t stay on the educational path. The students know they can trust us, to provide them the best opportunities to be successful. Valley affords them a second chance to regain their confidence about learning and their futures!”

The following is a passage from the Non-Commissioned Officers Creed: Competence is my watchword. My two basic responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind accomplishment of my mission and the welfare of my Soldiers. I will strive to remain technically and tactically proficient. I am aware of my role as a noncommissioned officer. I will fulfill my responsibilities inherent in that role. All Soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership. I know my Soldiers and I will always place their needs above my own. I will communicate consistently with my Soldiers and never leave them uninformed. I will be fair and impartial when recommending both rewards and punishment.

Our hope is that current Valley High Schools students will adhere to this message. In the end, it was a heart-warming and encouraging visit from a graduating Dragon. A message that we hope will resonate with all of the students that had the opportunity glean life lessons from one of their own. would like to thank Matthew Dierking, Laurie Sargent and the Valley High School staff for sharing their observations. And, we would like to thank Lorie Strelo for opening the doors to help share this story.

Valley High School Veterans Poster Board

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