IL’s Teacher of the Year passes on the inspiration

Pam Reilly, a second-grade teacher at Woodbury Elementary School in Sandwich Community Unit School District 430, was recently named the 2014 Illinois Teacher of the Year. Our main coverage, based on press releases, is here.

“Pam’s passion for teaching and her enthusiasm for helping her students succeed is so genuine and sincere that students are immediately drawn to her,” said State Superintendent of Education Christopher A Koch. “She really inspires her students, their parents and her colleagues and I’m confident Pam will be an excellent representative of Illinois teachers.”

However, since the Teacher of the Year from Maryland answered similar questions from his district, which were published on the district website, and since Ms Reilly wasn’t directly quoted in the press release from the Illinois State Board of Education, Voxitatis simply asked her directly. Her answers are shown below.


What inspired you to become an educator?

I was inspired by my guidance counselor at school, Mrs Judd. She encouraged me to use my study halls in high school to help in the kindergarten classroom. After volunteering my time, I never looked back. I knew exactly where I was meant to be—in a classroom.

Almost 30 years later, Mrs Judd continues to be a part of my life. She is 94 years old, and my three sons call her “Grandma Judd.” She is the true meaning of what a mentor should be. I know that we all say that teachers can make a difference, but I genuinely believe it, because I lived it. She believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. The dream begins, most of the time, with a teacher who believes in you!

What do you think is so important about public education?

It is the right of every child to receive a quality education. We must teach all students who walk through our doors, regardless of their life circumstances, and advocate for their needs. Education is essential to going to college, getting into a profession, and being more successful in life. Having quality educators in every classroom is paramount.

What do you consider the role of a teacher to be?

The first word that comes to mind for me is an advocate. I believe strongly that teachers need to advocate for all of their students. I have students across the spectrum that are hungry, without parents, homeless, or academically gifted. You name it, I’ve probably seen it and helped a child navigate their way through it. I need to ensure that they are all getting their needs met, regardless of their life challenges.

I also believe in the importance of forming relationships with your students. When I know my students both as individuals and learners, the rest seems to fall into place. If they truly feel that you genuinely care about them, they will try their best to reach the high expectations you make for them.

Do you have any favorite books or quotes that inspire you?

My favorite children’s book is The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Katie DiCamillo. It’s a great story told in an extremely beautiful way.

Edward begins as a selfish, arrogant character that cares for no one but himself. He is transformed throughout the story by the lives he touches. Along the journey of the story, the students are shown a miracle—that even a heart like Edward’s can learn to love, to lose, and to love again. I think the book is best summed up by one of the quotes within it: “If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless.” I cry every time I read this story no matter how many times I read it. I love showing the students that a book can bring out emotions in us—emotions of laughter and tears among others. It is a powerful story.

I have many quotes that inspire me. I have one that I tell my second graders every year: “Find what you love and are passionate about in life and make a career out of it—it will never feel like a job.” At second grade, I’m not sure that it sinks in. I make them a scrapbook every year and that’s one of the pieces of advice I include in their books for them to look back on in future years. I love my career—it is my dream job, and there is no other place I’d rather be. Another favorite quote is, “A teacher takes a hand, opens a mind, and touches a heart.” So true!

Because many young people today decide not to become teachers, despite a strong desire to teach, was there anything in particular that led you to stay with it during your college years?

I lived the experience of being broken and having someone take my hand and accept me, love me, advocate for me, and make me feel worthy. That someone was a teacher. I knew without a doubt, this was my destiny. Every time I may have felt overwhelmed with the challenges a college student faces, I only had to call upon my memories of Mrs Judd and how she brought about a change within me. Our relationship was so meaningful and powerful that I wanted to be able to emulate her by carrying on her genuine love and caring for individuals. I knew I wanted to be a “Mrs Judd” to many dumplings in my future that would need that compassionate hand extended to them.

I believe if you have a strong desire to teach, allow nothing to get in your way. Remember all of those who didn’t give up on you along the way, who inspired you—believe in yourself the way they believed in you. See above quote (“Find what you love and are passionate about in life and make a career out of it—it will never feel like a job”). I believe that is a combination of a few quotes possibly. I’ve been using it for years.

How does it feel to be Illinois’s Teacher of the Year?

I don’t think I can express in words what an honor it is to be recognized for something I truly love. I am witness to teachers’ dedication every day, always doing what’s best for students. I am beyond proud to represent and be the voice for our Illinois teachers in 2014.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.