DeKALB – Donna Werderich long ago envisioned herself as a businesswoman crafting the perfect sales pitch or becoming a school counselor uplifting people to become the best version of themselves.
But when those ideas didn’t pan out, Werderich eventually found her calling as a professor of education at a university.
“I wanted to come to this level because I wanted to have a greater ripple effect, so that capacity of helping to prepare teachers,” Werderich said. “I still teach students at all different levels, but I wanted to impact the teaching profession.”
Now Werderich is in the middle of her 30th year of teaching and 16th year as a professor at Northern Illinois University’s College of Education in DeKalb.
My favorite part is still making an impact, that ripple effect. When I know that something I have said or taught or modeled or shared, and to see that that student can take that into their future career and apply that with those students, that’s the most rewarding part.”— Donna Werderich, professor of education at NIU
Werderich recently was named the recipient of two prestigious institutional awards, the 2023 Excellence in Online Teaching award and the 2023 Presidential Teaching Professorship award.
“They both mean the world to me that, once again, the students and my peers have recognized the work that I have done,” Werderich said.
She said both accolades mean a great deal to her, but being recognized with the 2023 Presidential Teaching Professorship award allows her to join a club of former colleagues who also have been bestowed with the honor in the past.
“I had professors and former colleagues that had been awarded that,” Werderich said. “I have colleagues that have retired that are like, ‘Welcome to the club.’ I have the chills. I’m humbled. I’m honored. It just means the world to me. It really does.”
Werderich said that the reason she is passionate about teaching teachers is easy to pinpoint.
“Seeing the impact and connection that I, as a student, was having with some of my teachers, especially in high school, I saw that they truly loved what they were doing,” Werderich said. “They make connections and cared [about] their students. I’ve always held onto that. So I thought I didn’t necessarily want to be behind a desk the whole time. I wanted to have the impact that they had on me.”
Werderich said she is glad to help draw upon some of her skills and knowledge rooted in school counseling and social work in her role as a professor.
“As part of our role, we provide a lot of academic advising,” Werderich said. “We help with programming and helping them select their courses, their program and their pathway. … But teachers at all levels, we provide a lot of counseling to students. It’s beyond just academic content knowledge.”
Werderich acknowledged that students have social-emotional learning needs that need to be met at the university level, much like they do in K-12 schools. She said something has to give.
“Sometimes they just need someone who cares and [is] listening,” Werderich said. “The hugs, all students need that. They really do. The caring piece is so critical.”
Werderich expressed some words of wisdom for young people still trying to find their path in life.
“I tell my students that all the time, too, that your calling – especially in teaching, I think, there’s a calling – and when that calling comes, you’ll recognize it and be fortunate to enjoy what you do and be passionate about it,” Werderich said.
After 30 years, Werderich said she doesn’t regret her decision to turn to teaching.
“My favorite part is still making an impact, that ripple effect,” Werderich said. “When I know that something I have said or taught or modeled or shared, and to see that that student can take that into their future career and apply that with those students, that’s the most rewarding part. That’s what makes an impact. That’s what keeps me driving. That’s why I’m still here after 30 years.”