‘Crazy year’ in store for Sandwich educator named state’s top teacher
By Kalyn Belsha email@example.com October 29, 2013 10:16AM
Photo 1: Pam Reilly teaches students about the life cycle of a butterfly in her second grade classroom at Woodbury Elementary in Sandwich District 403. Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 1, 2013 8:08AM
On her drive down to central Illinois recently, Pam Reilly’s husband suggested she jot down a few remarks, just in case.
Reilly, who teaches second grade at Sandwich District 403’s Woodbury Elementary, was one of 11 finalists for Illinois Teacher of the Year.
The distinction is awarded annually by the State Board of Education at a banquet, held this year on Oct. 19 in Normal.
That list of finalists was whittled down from more than 180 nominees statewide.
Reilly was almost certain she hadn’t won. She figured the committee would let the winner know ahead of the ceremony. But, for good measure, she wrote a few thoughts on an index card and put it in her purse.
At the banquet, there was a mix-up about when the finalists would hear who had won and Reilly found herself on stage, without her remarks.
She was in awe of the caliber of teachers she was standing next to, Reilly said. Men and women who’d written books and accomplished major feats. She felt proud to be among them.
“I was listening closely and I was also trying to take in that moment,” she said of being on stage. “I genuinely did not think my name was going to get called.”
But then it did.
“My speech was from the heart, it was not from a script,” Reilly said.
She told the room: “As educators we know that teaching isn’t a career, it’s a life choice. It’s not an 8-to-5 job. We take it home with us.”
When she got back to her seat, Reilly recalled, her husband said, “‘I love you,’ ‘I’m proud of you’ and ‘We’re going to have a crazy year.’”
That crazy year will include a trip to Washington, D.C., to have lunch with President Barack Obama and his family, Reilly said, as well as a visit to NASA Space Camp in Alabama.
She’ll fly to Arizona this January to meet the other teacher of the year winners. Reilly will represent Illinois in the National Teacher of the Year program, which is overseen by the Council of Chief State School Officers. That program includes the 50 states, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and the Department of Defense Education Activity.
Starting in the spring, Reilly will travel Illinois, attending teaching workshops, speaking at educational conferences and visiting community meetings. It’s the part she’s most looking forward to, she said.
Reilly, who’s been teaching for 13 years, was greeted on her first day back with surprise fanfare.
“I pulled in and they told me to go away,” she said.
“You need to come back in 15 minutes,” the school staff told her.
Knowing they were up to something, Reilly went to get a cup of coffee at a café.
When she returned, a red paper carpet was running from the front of the school to her classroom. Students played instruments and teachers applauded. Balloons and streamers decorated the hallways and Reilly’s classroom.
“And then the bell rang and it was business, back to usual,” Reilly said, though her students did ask lots of questions, especially about meeting the president.
On Saturday, Reilly made a trip to Big Rock to visit her mentor, Louise Judd, 94, to tell her about the ceremony.
Reilly credits Judd with getting her into teaching many years ago. They met when Reilly was in eighth grade and Judd was a guidance counselor. Judd would later help arrange for Reilly to use her study halls at Somonauk High to work with kindergarten students in the district.
“She believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself,” Reilly said. “She led by example and because of her I am a teacher. Absolutely, 100 percent, she was the one who put me on this path. I know we all say teachers can make a difference in a child’s life, but I genuinely believe that, because I lived it.”
Reilly said she’s still letting it sink in that she won.
“There are so many teachers who should be in my same spot,” she said.
The morning after the banquet, she even asked if the panel members were sure they’d meant to pick her, if they’d made the right decision.
She was told her in-person interview helped her clinch the award. She made the panel laugh and cry with her answers and her passion for teaching.
“Maybe I haven’t done all those other things,” she said, “but I have the heart of a teacher.”