A Midway Independent School District principal spent time in a national spotlight this week for an intriguing marriage proposal, and her journey from struggling student to inspiring educator is just as striking, if not as attention-grabbing.

Castleman Creek Elementary Principal Mandy Vasek’s boyfriend, dressed up as the school mascot, proposed to her Jan. 26 in front of 600 elementary students during a secretly planned pep rally. The moment has gotten national attention, with stories running on ABC’s “World News Tonight,” Fox News Radio, “Inside Edition,” “Good Morning America” and local broadcast stations.

But before the proposal, she was known in the halls and classrooms for inspiring others to overcome learning challenges after facing her own educational adversity from elementary to high school, her coworkers said. Until college, Vasek didn’t have the ability to comprehend what she read. She couldn’t process the text on pages or in books and couldn’t mentally visualize what the words meant enough to draw conclusions and make inferences, as students are taught to do in English and language arts classes.

“I always struggled with that, and even today, I still have to work through that a lot. I was never an ‘A’ student in school. I had to work very, very hard. It got to the point when I was in high school where I struggled so much that I got to — I guess it was an ‘I don’t care’ mentality,” Vasek said. “I felt like I couldn’t do it. For me, giving the students here that growth mindset, we really talk that up big because of that, because of the struggles and because I don’t want any child to feel that way.”

Vasek, who is new to her administrative role, didn’t read her first full chapter book until she was 18, she said. The book, “The Boxcar Children,” is aimed at children in grades three through five.

When she graduated and tried to get into college, she struggled to score high enough on the reading portion of the entrance exam, she said.

Students who can’t read at grade level by third grade are more likely to graduate high school at an older age than the average 17- or 18-year-old, according to an article by Education Week, a national newspaper covering kindergarten through 12th-grade education. If the student faces economic disadvantages, the student’s chances for success in high school drop even more, the article states.

“I ended up having to go to a class, and it was there at MCC (McLennan Community College), where a teacher — she just had a loving heart — took me aside and worked with me harder than she did with anybody else in there because she knew I struggled,” Vasek said. “I could decode like crazy, I could read big words, I could spell but I couldn’t read. I couldn’t picture. I couldn’t do the visual images in my head, and that’s what she taught me.”

The challenge impacted her personal life, shaking her confidence to the point she felt excluded from others, she said. But the moment she finally committed to finishing college with a bachelor’s degree was the moment she started to embrace her differences. She started as a nursing major, but as Vasek looked back on her life, curriculum courses she took and people who helped propel her forward, she knew teaching was the best fit, she said.

A reading specialist position opened for the 2010-11 school year at Woodway Elementary, where Vasek worked at the time. Her co-workers knew just how much she loved reading, so they encouraged her to apply. She landed the job and fell in love with teaching students with dyslexia and other students facing struggles similar to her own, she said.

Kappy Edwards, an assistant principal at Spring Valley Elementary, met Vasek in 2005. Edwards was a first-grade teacher at the time and eventually learned about Vasek’s struggle. She shared ideas about how to break down barriers for struggling students, Edwards said. Vasek often helped with her students, she said.

“She is a very relational person, so one of her main things was just forming relationships with those kids and encouraging them and letting them know they can do it despite anything they had been told previously,” Edwards said. “A lot of it was relational, which did make a big difference with my students. I loved teaching reading, and she encouraged me to do that as well. She saw some leadership abilities that I didn’t really see in myself, and she encouraged me to take on that role as well.”

Now as an avid reader with a master’s degree under her belt, Vasek is focused in her role as principal both on what teachers teach and how students learn, she said. She shares her story with parents, teachers and students to show comprehension obstacles can be overcome, Vasek said.

“We have so much more information today than we did when I was in school. It’s all at our fingertips, and we have programs like Response to Intervention, where you catch kids before they fall into that gap,” Vasek said. “I felt like I was a gap kid. I was one of those ones who survived, just barely, with just enough air to keep on going.”

Clint Glaesmann, Vasek’s assistant principal, helped plan her surprise marriage proposal to Russ Johnson. Glaesmann has also seen first-hand how Vasek inspires those who work for her. He learned of her challenge when Vasek shared her story during a faculty meeting about developing a growth mindset, he said. As a former English teacher, he can recall times when writing came naturally to him but he couldn’t help students who were falling behind because he didn’t understand what that struggle was like or didn’t remember.

‘A unique perspective’

“It gives her a unique perspective. This isn’t true of all teachers, but most teachers loved education at some point and were passionate about it, so they want to continue that passion. For her, it came very difficult. She’s able to relate to those kids who are struggling,” Glaesmann said. “It’s a great motivational story about grit, about persevering and about that just because you’re struggling now doesn’t mean it’s always going to be that way. That translates to everything she does.”

Looking ahead, Vasek is working on her doctorate, writing a dissertation about how social media can be used as a tool for teacher and professional development, she said. She plans to graduate this May and said she never imagined she would be where she is now.

“Up until right before I interviewed for that (administrator) position, it was a confidence thing. Growing up struggling like that, your confidence is low, and I don’t like to be center stage,” Vasek said.

“I think it was people inspiring me to do that and believing in me. That’s why I did it, and now I’ve gained a lot of confidence since then and now I like giving that confidence back to the teachers here. I think one of the great things leaders can do is build other leaders and inspire and encourage and find the talent in people they don’t even know they have.”

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