Valerie Hanken

2021 Community Heroes - Estacada News - Estacada

Hometown: Estacada

Why she is a hero: Hanken didn’t let the COVID-19 pandemic stop her from supporting young learners at Red Barn Preschool.



The COVID-19 pandemic brought many unusual circumstances to education, but Valerie Hanken has ensured that the students at Red Barn still receive the necessary foundational skills.

Hanken, who has been the preschool’s head teacher since 2014, facilitated distance learning for young learners at the preschool while they were unable to gather in person because of the pandemic.

Autumn Jensen, who nominated Hanken as Estacada’s Community Hero, described her as “one of the greatest that Estacada has to offer.”

“Everyone knows her as Teacher Val. She is the most caring person that gives her all to her students at Red Barn co-op preschool while caring for her own four kids and starting a real estate career,” Jensen said. “She is someone that doesn’t get the recognition that she deserves. She puts countless hours into the preschool, not for the pay, but because she cares.”

Hanken, who has worked at Red Barn for over a decade, started out as a parent volunteering at the cooperative preschool. She was serving as president of the school board when the previous teacher retired and she was hired as her successor.

“I was in my senior year of college for business administration, and in my last year, I switched to early childhood education,” she said. “My advisor wasn’t happy, but teaching had always been my passion.”

Hanken also has a real estate career, but said she puts her work at the preschool first.
“I balance them very carefully,” she said. “Other than my family, the biggest thing is my preschool responsibilities. I build my schedule around that.”

Hanken noted that the pandemic has caused her to change many elements of the way she had previously taught. For example, Red Barn used to have a communal table for sensory play. Now, there are individual toys for this purpose.

“I’ve had to re-think a lot, but at least we’re able to be back in the building this year,” she said.

Though the pandemic has led to many changes, Hanken said the children have adjusted well. “I think it’s more difficult for me than for them,” she said. “This is the only way they’ve known school, and kids are resilient.”

Though COVID-19 safety guidelines will allow Red Barn to begin the school year in person, they spent part of last year in comprehensive distance learning.

“The kids actually did an amazing job with that,” she said, discussing the school’s online lessons. “We had virtual circle time two times a week. They did a good job taking turns and listening. It was a really fun way to connect with the children, especially my new students.”

Because of the pandemic, parents were unable to volunteer in-person last year. This year, Hanken is looking forward to welcoming them back.

“We can allow parents with facemasks,” she said. “That’s a really important piece of the Red Barn community. It’s neat to see parents learn about their kids, and connect with other parents and students. Because the kids are so young, this might be the first time they’ve connected with parents other than their friends.”

Hanken said she’s amassed too many favorite memories with her students to name, but she enjoys when the children draw pictures of her and when parents tell her the students went home and pretended to hold the story time she runs at school.

“Some of the kids think I’m going to be their teacher forever,” she said.

For Hanken, one of the most rewarding elements of working with the students is seeing them gain new skills.

“If they’re struggling in a certain area, we’ll work with them, and it’s great when that little light goes off and they get it,” she said.

Hanken’s family moved to Estacada when she was 1 year old, and today, two of her own children have graduated from Estacada High School. Though she didn’t attend Red Barn as a child, she has friends who did.

“Red Barn used to be a kindergarten as well, and a friend I went to high school with designed the logo when she was in kindergarten (at Red Barn),” Hanken said. “Now I get to see her work every day.”