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New IL Teacher of Year Shares Education Essentials

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Teaching and glamour rarely go together. But in Chicago’s West Suburban Cicero, one teacher just won the profession’s equivalent of an academy award.

This is what was going on in Linda Smerge’s head when she learned she was Illinois’ 2008-2009 teacher of the year.

SMERGE: It’s me, it’s really me. He he he! They really said my name! Did they say my name? They said my name!

Smerge teaches second grade at Wilson Elementary in Cicero. 13 years ago, her life was a different story.

SMERGE: Intrinsically, I really was dying inside.

Work as a lawyer left her empty, so she quit to find something more meaningful, and found it in the classroom. Some of her new colleagues didn’t understand why.

SMERGE: I think they wanted to become lawyers, so they couldn’t understand why I wanted to become a teacher.

DZIALLO: Oh, I had a lot of interaction with Linda!

Michael Dziallo currently serves as Assistant Superintendent in Cicero, but knows Smerge from his days as principal at Wilson.

DZIALLO: She always has intrigued me, that she left that lucrative career as an attorney to come help at-risk students here at Wilson.

Almost 80 percent of Wilson students come from low income families—and the District is struggling to meet state standards. Teaching here has it’s challenges.

Fifth grade teacher Arthur Capistran remembers how Smerge’s support and encouragement helped his own transition to teaching five years ago.

CAPISTRAN: Linda, Ms. Merge, is the kind of teacher you wanna be—you strive for. There’s no way I can even get near her, but I try my best.

So what’s her secret?

CLASS: Ms Smerge!

When Ms. Smerge enters the classroom, it’s pretty clear the kids are crazy about her.

HEIKENEN-WEISS: What do you guys think of Ms. Smerge?
STUDENT: We think that she actually be nice and we think she’s the 100 states of America.

Susie Braman saw Smerge in action when she taught Braman’s son years ago. Braman says she left a lasting impression.

BRAMAN: She goes there and I think its not so much about teaching the curriculum or educating the child in the academic setting, but educating them as a whole person.

Teachers who address student social and emotional needs are especially key in disadvantaged communities—say many education experts. It’s clear Smerge recognized this earlier in her career while teaching special Education, says Dziallo.

DZIALLO: Her second-grade students who were in special education actually did outscore, outperform some of the general education students in the district.

Smerge’s brought homemade snacks for hungry students. She’s convinced parents to let students stay with her after school for tutoring.

SMERGE: My brother called me once, and I had been up since 3 o’clock in the morning working for something for school, and he was just flabbergasted because he’s a lawyer. And he’s like, ‘I can’t believe this, you changed from the law and you’re still the same.’

But Smerge isn’t the same.

SMERGE: I felt that classic burn-out in law, uum, but it’s interesting—the children really keep me alive.

Smerge describes her own childhood as happy, but difficult. Her father died of a genetic illness when she was seven, leaving her mother to raise six children. Lately, she’s especially concerned with the impact the economy will have on her students, some of whom already struggle with homelessness.

SMERGE: It is vital to help those students become a part of the community.

In January, Smerge will start her ambassadorship, speaking at educator workshops and community events across the state and country.

SMERGE: I do believe that because of the manner in which I grew up, that I have empathy. I understand that nothing is perfect, and I teach with unconditional love and I think it’s because of the way that I was brought up.

She’s honored to accept her new position, but admits that her leave of absence will be bittersweet. The toughest part, she says, will be leaving her students.

For Chicago Public Radio, I’m Eilee Heikenen-Weiss.

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