OREGON — Being on sabbatical and having speaking engagements scheduled across Illinois hasn’t kept Spanish teacher Kimberly Radostits from spending time in the halls of Oregon Junior-Senior High School.
“On the days that I do not have something scheduled, I could work from home, but I’ve chosen to spend my time here at school,” said Radostits, the 2022 Illinois Teacher of the Year. “So I actually do my work from the foyer of Oregon Junior-Senior High School, which allows me to interact with my students and my colleagues in between passing periods. And, though they’re informal conversations, I’m able to stay connected to … the people who really do energize me.”
The 37-year-old Fairdale resident was named the state’s top teacher on March, 22, 2022.
The Illinois State Board of Education’s Teacher of the Year program recognizes “the best of the teaching profession” in the state, according to the ISBE website. All public and nonpublic pre-K-12 educators who have more than five years of experience are eligible to win.
In June 2022, Radostits began a year-long ambassadorship that allows her to travel throughout Illinois speaking to educators and education stakeholders. The state is funding Radostits’ sabbatical and the cost of a teacher to cover her absence.
“My network has expanded in ways that I never thought possible,” she said. “It’s just so awesome to be with like-minded people.”
Research she’s been doing includes interviewing schools that are high-performing in terms of freshmen on track, which is an indicator pulled in by the ISBE. Radostits then highlights those schools’ systems on her blog, Fresh Takes on Freshman on Track.
“Man, every time I walk away from one of those meetings, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I cannot wait to get back in the classroom and try out some of these things that other schools are doing,’” Radostits said.
Radostits said there are three main groups of people she has tried to reach: aspiring teachers, current teachers, and administrators and stakeholders.
Her message to aspiring teachers is that teaching provides the opportunity to be creative every day, to be a lifelong learner and to impact change on all levels through students, who are the world’s future.
In talking to high school and college students looking to get into teaching, Radostits said she sees a bright future for education.
“I’m so looking forward to the energy that they’re going to bring, the fire in their belly that they have to promote positive change,” she said. “I just can’t wait to see the magic that they’re going to make happen when they get in here.”
For those currently in education, Radostits wants to emphasize the importance of developing in relationships with students, students’ families and with colleagues.
“I truly believe that all students need to feel known and valued,” she said. “I truly believe that all students need to be given access to the skills and the supports that they need to be successful, regardless of their background. I also believe that teachers need all of the same things.”
Families need to know that their children’s educators believe they are worthwhile and have the potential to be responsible, productive citizens and good humans, Radostits said. Additionally, if families are invited to learn about a teacher’s world and are made comfortable enough to share what’s happening in their world, it helps educators better serve students, she said.
She and her colleagues learn from each other every day about instructional strategies, classroom content matter and students, Radostits said, noting that she relies on conversations with colleagues to do what she does. Those conversations might be in a professional development meeting, but more often are around the water fountain or next to the jammed copy machine.
“This is bigger than me. I am not the best teacher in Oregon, Illinois, or in the state or in the country,” Radostits said. “I am a teacher that is doing my best for students each and every day, and I’m doing that alongside some incredible educators.”
Radostits said she’d love to see administrators and stakeholders invest in more mentorship programs for students and teachers alike.
“I’ve been talking to them about systems of support and things that work here in Oregon that I believe are replicable and scalable,” Radostits said, referring to the Hawks Take Flight and New Teacher Academy programs she helped create.
Hawks Take Flight and the New Teacher Academy are two different programs, but they’re very similar, she said. Both are relationship-based mentorship programs — one for students and one for teachers.
On Jan. 25, Radostits was announced as one of five finalists for 2023 National Teacher of the Year. The winner will be announced in March and will spend a year “serving as an ambassador for education and an advocate for all teachers and students.”
The National Teacher of the Year Program was created in 1952 and is run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, a national nonprofit organization which represents all 58 leaders of K-12 education systems in the U.S. and its territories.
Finalists were selected from a cohort of 55 teachers representing the U.S. states and territories. The other four are Harlee Harvey, a first grade teacher from Alaska; Carolyn Kielma, a high school science teacher from Connecticut; Jermar Rountree, a pre-K-8 physical education and health teacher from Washington, D.C.; and Rebecka Peterson, a high school math teacher from Oklahoma.
To be named a finalist is exciting, Radostits said. While she loves being in her classroom and spending time with her students, being National Teacher of the Year would be a “whirlwind of an adventure” she also would love and lean into.
Having reviewed the biographies of her fellow CCSSO cohort members, Radostits “couldn’t be more excited” to see them in mid-February, when they’ll have an in-person meet-up in California. She plans to thank everyone — and hug whomever will allow her to do so.
“They’re moving mountains in their states and I’m so impressed by each and every one of those incredible educators,” Radostits said. “I just want to sponge up what they’re doing. I want to learn from them. I want to lean into some conversations with them.”