Heather Imhof is no stranger to adversity: In fact, the two are pretty good friends.
The award-winning sixth grade science and social studies teacher at Oak Valley Elementary School in Deptford got her start with the district as a substitute through Source4Teachers. Imhoff was later hired as a long-term substitute before landing a job as an English language arts and social studies teacher, an ideal role.
Imhof’s passion was in the arts: literature, theater and writing. A job sharing that passion with sixth graders was perfect. Or so she thought.
When a numbers crunch at Oak Valley four years ago jostled Imhof’s responsibilities, she was left on the outside of her English classroom looking in. Her new domain was the science lab: She traded novels for beakers, spelling bees became science experiments, book reports turned into lab reports and wall art of poet Emily Dickinson gave way to scientist Marie Curie.
“I embraced it,” Imhof recalled. “And I like it more than I like social studies and definitely more than teaching ELA (English Language Arts).”
Since making the jump from ELA to science, Imhof has pursued college credits in science classes, moving in the direction of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), a field dominated by men.
“We don’t have enough women in the STEM field,” Imhof noted. “I want to be a role model for girls. Especially show them it’s not that daunting, it’s not intimidating.”
She believes it goes both ways, too, that girls can be involved in the STEM field while boys can find a home in the arts, nursing or other fields typically dominated by females.
Imhof embraced the challenge of switching teaching fields and four years later, her hard work and dedication has been recognized: She was named Teacher of the Year for 2020-’21.
“It was amazing,” she said simply.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Imhof does 100-percent of her teaching from home, though some of her students are physically in the school due to the district’s hybrid class schedule, they attend her science class virtually.
On a rainy, Friday mid-morning Imhof’s doorbell rang, sending her dog into a frenzy. She thought it might have been her mother, a retired teacher, but she was shocked when she was called to the door.
“I open the door and it’s my principal, the entire office staff standing there with balloons, flowers and a big sign that says ‘Teach of the Year!’” she described. “I burst into tears and it was a moment of disbelief. They were on my doorstep in the rain, it was surreal. It’s nice to be acknowledged but never in a million years did I expect it.”
Imhof, ever the team player, felt there were a lot of other teachers in her school worthy of the honor that she would have chose before herself.
“It was unexpected and really appreciated,”
One could say that Imhof was built for these moments; as the daughter of an early childhood educator she was taught to be adaptive at a young age.
“She was an incredible role model as a teacher and a person that inspired me to be innovative and go for it. She also made me feel like it was OK to make mistakes,” she described. “It was a comfortable, welcoming environment at home. I would visit her classroom in college and high school to help out and see the creative activities she did. She was a huge inspiration to me. She went above and beyond.”
At the end of the day Imhof feels validated that her hard work and dedication to her craft and her students has been recognized by her administration and peers.
“My husband gets evaluated on metrics as a financial advisor. Other professions get bonuses based on performance. As a teacher you don’t always get that performance review; you get evaluated but sometimes you’re asking ‘Am I doing enough?’ I feel you can always do more,” she explained.
“This is showing me, I know I’m doing enough. I’m doing a good job. My team’s doing a good job. I feel appreciated.”
Add in the fact we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic and it makes the achievement that much more sweet.
“This too, shall pass,” she said with a smile. “I feel like we’re going to come out stronger on the other side and hopefully more unified as a country. I would last say that I love my district, I love Deptford Township, I love my school.
“I couldn’t imagine doing any other profession. There is no place I’d rather be and I feel that expression ‘Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,’ even in the most challenging times; I feel it’s just fun.”