Sandwich educator is finalist for state’s teacher of year
By Kalyn Belsha firstname.lastname@example.org September 13, 2013 9:22AM
Pam Reilly, a second grade teacher at Sandwich District 403's Woodbury Elementary, is a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year. On Thursday, she passed out felt food cut-outs for students during a reading of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 16, 2013 6:29AM
SANDWICH — Each student in Pam Reilly’s second-grade class held tight to a piece of felt food: plums, strawberries, Swiss cheese, cherry pie. But not for long.
“Just take what you want!” some yelled giggling, as Reilly circled the room with a green caterpillar puppet on her hand, nibbling their foods one by one as her classroom aide read from “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
The classic children’s book, about a caterpillar that eats its way through nearly every food imaginable before retreating into a cocoon, was part of the class’ Thursday lesson about the life cycle of the butterfly.
Reilly made the puppet to get the students interested in the book and to inject some fun into the lesson.
“I will do just about anything to engage my students,” Reilly said. “I’m singing and dancing and putting on costumes.”
And it’s just that kind of creativity that helped make Reilly one of 11 finalists for Illinois Teacher of the Year, a distinction awarded by the State Board of Education.
Announced Monday, the finalists were chosen by a panel of school staffers and past winners from among 200 nominees.
Reilly, who teaches at Woodbury Elementary in Sandwich District 403, was bit by the teaching bug as a student at Somonauk High, where she used her study halls to work with kindergarten students.
She went on to earn her bachelor’s in education from Aurora University and a master’s in curriculum and instruction from National Louis University.
Reilly started her teaching career in 1994 in Plano District 88. After taking some time off to stay at home with her three sons, she joined Sandwich 403’s Woodbury Elementary five years ago.
Principal Shirley DeCorte said she nominated Reilly for the award because she teaches students at their individual levels and changes up instruction to target how each child learns best, whether it’s through listening, writing, art or a hands-on activity.
“She really goes out of her way to figure out what the children need and how she can fill that need,” DeCorte said.
DeCorte added that Reilly also spends time learning about how to best incorporate technology into the classroom and shares that with school staff. When the school received funding to buy its first interactive whiteboard, Reilly volunteered to pilot it and teach other teachers how to use it.
Reilly also focuses on giving options to her students — she has 18 this year — about what they read and how.
Over her 13-year teaching career she’s amassed about 3,000 books, she said, each labeled with a reading level so she can help students pick books that are both interesting to them and academically appropriate.
Last year Reilly started a program in her class that designates 20 minutes a day for each student to read with an adult, 20 minutes to write and 20 minutes to pick a reading activity, such as working on an iPad or buddy reading.
Reilly relies on volunteers and teacher aides to help with the supervised reading.
“When they choose what they’re going to do for that hour then they’re more engaged, they want to explore,” she said. “I think they feel proud when they make their own decisions.”
She even has students recite a mantra she came up with last year to reinforce that students take responsibility for their education.
“Who’s in charge of your learning?” she asks.
“I am!” they reply.
For Reilly, being recognized for her teaching was doubly affirming, because she almost wasn’t at her school to receive the honor.
Back in the spring when the district was looking at what it could cut to balance the budget, teachers were informed as many as seven of them could lose their jobs.
Though the teachers weren’t named, according to Doni Morgan, the president of the Sandwich Classroom Teachers Association, it was obvious who would be cut based on seniority. Reilly was likely on the list, Morgan said.
But teachers voted in May to freeze their salaries until fall 2014 to avoid the cuts, a move Reilly appreciates.
“I am very proud to represent these people,” she said. “They’re great teachers and their heart is in the right place.”
Reilly will find out in October if she’s been named the top teacher in the state.
But even if she doesn’t win, she’s excited getting to do what she does every day.
“This is my dream job,” she said. “There is no other place that I’d rather be.”