#40EOTY: U-46 Science Teacher Holly Yee Named Kane County Educator of the Year
Accompanied by comic book motion graphics and theme songs from Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Iron Man, U-46 middle school teacher Holly Yee was named the Educator of the Year on Friday, April 29, at The Q Center in St. Charles.
As she accepted her award, Yee shared with the audience of 600 administrators, teachers and elected officials that she had brought seed packets to tonight’s ceremony.
“I gave everyone at my table a seed packet containing wildflowers tonight,” she said. “On the package it says, ‘All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today.’ ”
Yee has taught environmental science at Ellis Middle School for 21 years and has empowered students to take an active role in their community. Her science club, the Science Nerds, have been instrumental in cleaning up Willow Creek, a body of water that starts in Lords Park, merges with Poplar Creek, and flows into the Fox River.
Educator of the Year – Holly Yee
For Yee’s students, success has always occurred when pairing classroom learning and real-world applications. She developed her love of environmental sciences by spending time in Wallops Island, VA, working side by side with marine scientists in high school.
“Integrating real world experiences with the curriculum makes learning meaningful and helps build a foundation for my students to be responsible for their own learning,” explained Yee.
Within her nomination book, at least half of the pages are filled with photos or newspaper clippings of her students outside the classroom. From wading through knee-deep water to identifying prairie grasses, Yee’s students are active community members in Elgin.
“By using the community as a classroom, Mrs. Yee’s approach to education separates her from other teachers and should be considered best practice,” explained a city administrator. “Mrs. Yee and her students helped design, name, and build Trillium Natural Park, that directly benefits the neighborhood.”
Along with the 29 nominees that were honored Friday night, below are the eight profiles that were chosen as winners within their categories.
Superintendent’s Award – Ryan Robinson
If you ask most educators about their first year of teaching, not many can say that they created their own program from scratch. But in 2008, Ryan Robinson did exactly that.
Robinson was invited to Central High School to launch and charter a new agricultural science program that would grow to include 440 students. As the former Illinois president of the Future Farmers of America, Ryan credits his success to his own agricultural science and FFA teacher in high school, Mr. Lockwood.
“These moments all happened because I had met Mr. Lockwood, and he saw potential in what I could become,” Robinson said. “It is my hope that I can provide these same moments for my own students and athletes in agriculture, basketball and golf programs at Central High School.”
“Watching students grow and mature into wonderful young men and women is the most rewarding experience, and it is what drives me to continue being the best educator and coach I can be.”
Educational Support Personnel of the Year – Tina Zucker
Tina Zucker is known for bending over backwards to ensure that the needs of St. Charles North High School are met by putting in time on weeknights and weekends, “way beyond the scope of her position as an administrative assistant,” shared an administrator. She schedules on-site Saturday testing, works athletic events and serves as the support staff union president.
Most recently, Zucker took on the project of registering all 17- and 18-year-old students to vote, and the amount of participation by the students drew her praise by teachers and administrators around the building.
Described as “the heartbeat of NHS,” her many letters of support recognize that her talents and efforts are behind the scenes — essential tasks that go without reward. “She is not afraid of physical or mental work. Zucker is the sort of person who embraces work with a consistent “just-get-it-done attitude,” while working with a smile.
“Every time I’m in the front office, I can expect to be energized by her positive and engaging spirit,” a nomination letter said. From creating choreography for Project Dance, to grilling 200 brats at the End of the Year Picnic, chances are if you’ve visited North High School, you’ve been touched by Zucker’s dedication to her school.
Student Support Personnel of the Year – LeeAnn Rodriguez
While growing up, LeeAnn Rodriguez was fortunate to be raised in a supportive and loving household, and she believes her nurturing demeanor toward her students stems from that experience. As a speech language pathologist at School District 101’s Batavia Early Childhood Center, she says her passion is helping to develop the whole child.
“It is incredibly important to not solely focus on their speech and language impairment, but also looking at what is functional for them in terms of saying their own name or a sibling’s name clearly,” Rodriguez explained.
Like many of the nominees for Educator of the Year, Rodriguez’s book is filled with letters from happy parents whose children have excelled in academics because of her guidance.
“Thanks to LeeAnn, our son has had early intervention since 3 years of age and at 9 is now a successful student and athlete,” one parent praised. “With recognition of the agony parents endure during the initial diagnoses of a child’s special needs, Mrs. Rodriguez applies her craft with gentleness and an absence of judgment.”
Preschool Teacher of the Year – Argelia Luna
Argelia Luna, or Vivi, as her community affectionately refers to her, is a true East Aurora Tomcat. She attended elementary school, middle school and high school in East Aurora, and now has brought her talents and love of education back to Oak Park Elementary.
“My mother emigrated from Mexico to Aurora with hopes that I would learn English,” she said. “Now, years later, I am the one that is teaching the little ones of Aurora how to speak English.”
At 12 years old, Luna knew she wanted to teach and loved working with preschoolers. She feels that her greatest contribution to education is helping students’ families each school year to realize that they play a vital role in their child’s education.
“I believe that teaching is best when done in collaboration with the students, parents, school and community,” she said. “Mutual respect, open communication, interdependence and transparency will help a child reach their full potential.”
Early Career Educator of the Year – Jessica Weibler
Although she has only been teaching for three years since graduating from Illinois State University, Jessica Weibler has been recognized as an organized leader with refreshing ideas. Like many teachers, she spends long evenings after school preparing her curriculum, but the job brings her so much enjoyment that she could not imagine having a different career.
“Being able to witness my students become better writers from rough drafts to their final pieces makes me feel like I am making a difference,” Weibler said.
Weibler’s supporters describe her as patient and positive.
“Her attitude is absolutely contagious. It is difficult to walk away from an encounter with Jessica without feeling more positive than before the encounter,” shared one of her nominators.
As a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Kaneland Harter Middle School, she actively shares her love of writing and encourages her students to explore writing too. She has pioneered an after-school program called the Knight Writers, an opportunity for students to meet once a week to improve their literacy.
Elementary School Teacher of the Year – Barbara Freeman
Praised by colleagues and students alike, Barbara Freeman has served in many capacities in the Geneva academic community. From Western Avenue Elementary School teacher, to parent, to Geneva Education Association vice president, being involved at a high level of the union left Freeman with a better understanding of the community as a whole.
“It was a rewarding experience. It also gave me a broader perspective about education and an opportunity to connect with others in the district,” she explained.
Freeman’s book is filled with stories of how she has gone beyond the expectations of a teacher’s role to ensure students feel appreciated, and in turn, succeed. One story is about a student who would come to school with a very dirty coat that had never been washed. Freeman knew she had two short breaks during her day, took the coat home to wash and dry, and brought it back to school before the end of the day.
“I looked over and she was feeling the coat, she smelled her coat, and she put it on and made eye contact with me. I winked at her, and she gave me a big grin,” she said. “We never spoke about it, but she knew somebody cared whether or not she had clean clothes to wear.”
Middle School Teacher of the Year – Linda Kleiner
With leadership roles in the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, the Boys and Girls Club, Camp Fire USA, and as a soccer coach, it was obvious to Linda Kleiner’s friends and family that she was a natural-born teacher. Although the Lakewood School teacher always had a love of learning and children, when she was in high school, her counselor discouraged her from pursuing a college education.
Kleiner was shocked by this suggestion, and against the advice of this school counselor, pursued a degree bachelor of arts from Northern Illinois University. Today, she prides herself on instilling confidence within her sixth-graders, and it is obvious within her nomination letters from students that they enjoy learning.
“I found from my earlier experience with the counselor that learning and college is possible whether you struggle in school or if you are the first to go to college in your family,” Kleiner said. “One thing every student knows when they leave my classroom is that they have the power to learn anything and pursue their dreams even if they didn’t think it was possible.”
High School Teacher of the Year – Michelle Jurcenko
When Kaneland High School teacher Michelle Jurcenko was a child, she would skip recess, insisting she felt ill and only had the strength to help grade papers, decorate the bulletin boards and place stickers on completed homework assignments. Between asking for a school desk for her 9th birthday and begging her young sister to “play school,” Jurcenko has been intent on teaching for as long as she can remember.
Jurcenko has enjoyed teaching students the Spanish language and culture at Kaneland High School since 2007. Her instructional prowess goes beyond the classroom, as she has been leading study abroad trips to Spanish-speaking countries since 1998.
“There are many classes that I look back on from my high school where I don’t remember every single bit of content from that class, but I do remember how that particular teacher made an impact on my life,” Jurcenko said. “Many of my students may not go home to adults that are always happy and kind to them, so the least I can do in the 50 minutes they are in my class is to make sure they feel like they are an important part of my day.”
School Administrator of the Year – Dr. Twila Garza
As a leader and principal at Bardwell Elementary School, Dr. Twila Garza’s staff believes that the key to her success is her approachability. She is often found in the classrooms, eating lunch with students, attending after-school events, and hosting monthly meetings for parents. Garza is known for her pet boa constrictor, Harley, that lives in a tank in her office.
“I work 60 hours a week, every week, sometimes more, but never less,” Garza said in her nomination materials. “Within a week I will answer 225 emails, spend four hours on data, five hours writing formal and informal observations, six hours meeting with teachers, and eight hours observing classroom activities.”
Garza believes that students should not be asked if they will attend college, but where they will attend college. She has created a partnership with Aurora University, through which student teachers spend time in her classrooms. She believes this instills a love of learning and reinforces the importance of a college education.
Meet the Other Nominees:
- #41EOTY Week 1: Meet 8 Super-Hero ‘Educator of the Year’ Nominee
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- #41EOTY Week 3: Up, Up & Away! It’s 7 Super-Hero ‘Educator of the Year’ Nominees!
- #41EOTY Week 4: To Infinity & Beyond! It’s 7 Super-Hero ‘Educator of the Year’ Nominees!
About the Kane County Regional Office of Education
Led by Regional Superintendent of Schools Patricia Dal Santo, The Kane County ROE is located in Geneva and serves nine school districts. From teacher licensure assistance to professional development, the ROE’s mission is to advocate for education, provide leadership and perform regulatory functions. Learn more about the ROE’s offerings on Facebook, Twitter and by signing up for the semimonthly newsletter.