Even on sabbatical, ‘Ms. Rad’ connects with students from spot in school foyer

Kimberly Radostits is state’s Teacher of the Year and national finalist

Spanish teacher Kimberly Radostits works in the Oregon Junior-Senior High School foyer on Feb. 2, 2023, checking the list of her upcoming speaking engagements. Radostits is the 2022 Illinois Teacher of the Year and has been on a state-funded sabbatical since June 2022. On Jan. 25, she was named one of five finalists for 2023 National Teacher of the Year.

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 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.

Oregon High School teacher Kimberly Radostits reacts for being chosen 2022 Illinois Teacher of the Year. Pictured with Radostits is Oregon Superintendent Tom Mahoney (left) and State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen I. Ayala (right). Officials surprised Radostits in her classroom with the announcement on Tuesday morning.

In June 2022, Radostits began a yearlong 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 keeping freshmen on track for graduation, 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.

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.’ ”

—  Kimberly Radostits, 2022 Teacher of the Year

Her message to aspiring teachers is that teaching provides the opportunity to be creative every day, to be a lifelong learner and to effect 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 that she sees a bright future for education.

Kimberly Radostits, the 2022 Illinois State Teacher of the Year from Oregon, speaks before a ceremony recognizing graduates of a special program at SVCC’s Education Symposium on Friday, April 29, 2022. Pathways provides high school students who are going into the field of education a step ahead.

“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 relationships with students, students’ families and 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 the 2023 National Teacher of the Year. The winner will spend a year “serving as an ambassador for education and an advocate for all teachers and students.”

Oregon High School Principal Heidi Deininger, left, hugs National Teacher of the Year finalist Kimberly Radostits on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.

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 that 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.

On April 19, the governing organization named Rebecka Peterson, a high school math teacher from Oklahoma, as the 2023 national teacher of the year.

The other finalists were Harlee Harvey, a first-grade teacher from Alaska; Carolyn Kielma, a high school science teacher from Connecticut; and Jermar Rountree, a pre-K-8 physical education and health teacher from Washington, D.C.

To be named a finalist is exciting, Radostits said. She said she loves being in her classroom and spending time with her students.

Having reviewed the biographies of her fellow CCSSO cohort members, Radostits was part of an in-person meetup in California.

“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.”

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner reports on Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties for Shaw Media out of the Dixon office. Previously, she worked for the Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Michigan, and the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.