Even when students are not in school for the summer, you'll find Naperville North High School teacher Michael Jelinek maintaining a memorial garden for two graduates who died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jelinek says he simply served as a "sounding board" to brainstorm ideas for the creation of the Memorial Peace Garden, unveiled in the school's atrium in 2011. But Jenne Dehmlow, head of the social studies department who spearheaded the effort by a group of educators, says Jelinek, a history teacher, took a much more active and behind-the-scenes role.
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Curriculum vitae: Top Teacher Michael JelinekName: Michael Jelinek
Occupation: History teacher at Naperville North High School; lieutenant commander recently activated from the Naval Reserves
Education: Bachelor's degree in history, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; master's degree in curriculum and instruction, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; master's degree in ancient and classical history, American Military University
Activities: Assistant football coach; sponsor of Schools for Schools club
After the school received a donation of materials from a local landscaping company, Jelinek helped physically construct the garden, she said. He regularly weeds it during warmer months, she said, and can be spotted year-round picking up any debris that creeps into the site.
The garden honors Army Staff Sgt. Andrew R. Pokorny and Marine Cpl. Anthony G. Mihalo. Pokorny was killed in 2003 while fighting in Iraq, and Mihalo was killed in 2008 during combat in Afghanistan.
"It's something that you can't just walk by it anymore," Jelinek, 36, says. "Everyone at least takes a second to look in there and knows it's actually a special place, and it's there for a reason."
This school year, teachers from several departments and special needs students launched a fundraising campaign to add roughly 1,000 tulips to create a spring "Field of Flowers." When Dehmlow put out a feeler asking faculty to help raise funds, Jelinek was one of the first to collect money during lunch hour with special ed students.
"For me, he's a go-to guy in the department," Dehmlow said. "If there's work that needs to be done, you can count on Mike."
Jelinek's commitment to veterans and the principle of personal responsibility that he drills into students and football players as an assistant coach springs from his own military service, colleagues say. Jelinek recently was activated from the Naval reserves as a lieutenant commander.
Before becoming a reservist, he served more than four years on active duty as a surface warfare officer, or as Jelinek says, a "ship driver."
He was deployed three times, twice to the Persian Gulf. His third deployment also was headed there on Sept. 11, but was diverted to Afghanistan.
Two years ago, he was activated from the reserves for the campaign in Libya called Operation Odyssey Dawn.
While he says he doesn't regularly tie his military career into lesson plans, Jelinek mentors students considering enlisting or applying to a service academy.
"They have to do their research," he says. "They have to know exactly what they want out of it before they go into it."
He also has attracted local veterans and a high-ranking military official to interact with students in seminar-like events at the high school. And he's trained in a curriculum program developed by the Medal of Honor Foundation. The high school typically runs a video teleconference each year with Medal of Honor recipients.
"He leverages his contacts in the military community and in the veterans community to create opportunities for students to interact with real people at the school," says Naperville North Principal Kevin Pobst. "I think that for the students, that brings a lot of depth and understanding of the people who serve and who make incredibly important decisions."
Naperville's Judd Kendall VFW Post 3873 nominated Jelinek for district-level judging in an annual contest by the Veterans of Foreign Wars honoring teachers who promote civic responsibility, patriotism and flag etiquette. Jelinek, whose dad served as the Naperville post commander, won at both the district and state levels.
Nina Petru, the current post commander in Naperville, says Jelinek is the point-person at Naperville North for events bringing together veterans and students. She also highlighted his position as a "civilian soldier."
"You have your primary job and still the call to duty that we all answer," said Petru, a former reservist. "He manages to juggle all the balls very well and doesn't drop one."
For his dedication and extra effort, the Daily Herald is celebrating Jelinek as a Top Teacher, a recognition of suburban educators who distinguish themselves both in and outside the classroom.
Jelinek, who grew up in Naperville and graduated from Naperville North, has taught at the high school since 2005. This year, he taught both freshmen and seniors in ancient medieval history and Advanced Placement world history, respectively.
In a recent freshmen class at Naperville North, three hands shot up before Jelinek even posed a question about the image of an artifact.
In Jelinek's lesson on the Byzantine Empire, historical figures had intriguing back stories -- an emperor who survived the plague, for one -- against a backdrop of visuals. Of course, there were maps. But there were snapshots of crowns, architecture, sculpture and mosaics.
The result was a classroom where curious students asked questions almost as much as their teacher and high-fived each other after correct answers.
"He explains everything in detail, so it's easy to understand," freshman Peter Lawrisuk says. "This is a very open environment."
To Jelinek, history is more than a regurgitation of facts. It's murkier, more complex. Students must clearly articulate arguments and examine the decision-making behind events.
"I'm not trying to be Socrates here and challenge authority," Jelinek says. "I just want them to at least be able to understand the foundation and see where their thoughts come from and why they believe the things they do."
His hope is that his lessons also challenge students to see where they fit in a community.
"I see history as being a foundation of a larger social studies education, and that is getting students to recognize that they're all part of something bigger than themselves," Jelinek says.
It's a principle that expands to the educator's no-nonsense role as an assistant football coach.
Every two weeks before the school day began, Jelinek delivered a roughly 30-minute talk to players on the concepts of being a leader, not just on the team, but in school hallways and in Naperville. The program began two years ago after morale problems frustrated coaches at the ends of seasons.
"We kept saying, 'Man, I wish they'd take some ownership,'" Jelinek says. "'I wish they'd do some things on their own without coaches having to initiate.'"
Now, players are doing more together off the field and taking more responsibility for organizing annual service projects, Jelinek says. And that's translating to games.
"On any given play, something bad can happen," Jelinek says. "You can either put blame on somebody for it or try to make an excuse or you can take ownership of it and move on and make the commitment that I made a mistake and it's not going to happen again."
He also sponsors a Naperville North club working to establish a mentoring program that pairs students, most of whom are in advance placement classes, with third- through fifth-grade students at area elementary schools who may be struggling in certain academic areas like math and science.
"They're trying to use a talent and interest they have to make an impact on the community," Jelinek says.
Dehmlow says she only recently found out about Jelinek's efforts with the club, now in its second year.
"A lot of things that Michael does, he doesn't talk about," she explains.
Besides his humility, Dehmlow says Jelinek is the most advanced faculty member in the department when it comes to technology. Jelinek cites his frequent use of websites for his courses where students can find links to news publications or complete online quizzes.
Several times a year, Jelinek participates in seminars with college professors, including a teacher consortium at the Newberry Library in Chicago where he explores new material and insight from experts on topics like the use of propaganda in the Crusades.
"He's very knowledgeable about the various subjects that he teaches and takes a lot of pride in making sure he stays up to date," Pobst says.
During his sophomore year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he decided to switch majors from astronomical engineering to history and become a teacher.
"I was so frustrated, and I said 'I should be doing something I liked,' and I remembered how much I liked history in high school," he says.
Jelinek credits one of his former history teachers at Naperville North, Glenn Schneider, as one of his inspirations for his teaching.
"It's not like he got me to change my mind on a lot of things, but at least he forced me to sit down and think about why I believe the things I believe," he says.
Dehmlow says Jelinek's activation from the reserves is a "huge blow" to the department, but he is expected to return to teaching at Naperville North.
"Students adore him," she said.