The hallway is dark and the door to Room 6012 is locked just after 7 a.m., about an hour before Bill Fritz' sophomore accelerated English class at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire is scheduled to begin.
Senior Tessa Kamp is waiting, crouched in the doorway, as Fritz arrives. She hasn't had him as a teacher for three years but, like many former students, keeps in touch. They haven't spoken in awhile, Kamp explains, as she has class in another building.
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Curriculum vitaeBill Fritz's background and teaching qualifications
• Communications arts teacher at Stevenson High School since 1990
• Finalist 2013-14 Illinois Teacher of the Year
• Master of Science degree in education from Northwestern University
• Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and drama, Kenyon College
• Has designed and presented various workshops for the National Council of Teachers of English
• Participated on faculty team to identify and intervene with students at risk for drug and alcohol related issues, 2008-13.
Ÿ Member National Council of Teachers of English; Illinois Speech and Theater Association; Illinois Assocation of Teachers of English.
• Served in U.S. Peace Corps, 1986-88. Taught English as a Second Language, Goulmima, Morocco
• CORE leader, 2011-present. Calibrate curricular vision with administration and department leadership
• Gay Straight Alliance student club sponsor since 2003
• Trained to administer workshops in diversity; coordinated tolerance workshops for students and school leaders on multicultural issues
• Congressional debate coach, 2008-present
"He's one of my favorite teachers and he's really there for his students," said Kamp, who had nothing pressing but stopped by to catch up.
She is the first of several students, some current, some past, who check in with Fritz before the opening bell.
Driven by personal experience -- bullied during high school and shaped by a two-year stint in the Peace Corps teaching English as a second language in a small Moroccan village -- Fritz considers helping students solve problems as a gift.
One of the school's most popular teachers and a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year, Fritz is able to quickly connect with students.
In his view, having an open-door classroom is a way to personalize education and give high school students a port in a storm where they feel safe and welcome in what can be an impersonal place.
It is for his passion, dedication and extra effort that the Glencoe resident has been selected by the Daily Herald as a "Top Teacher," a designation for suburban educators who distinguish themselves in the classroom and beyond.
"His teaching invests in developing minds that question. He develops curiosity. He develops students who recognize endless possibilities," said Mark Onuscheck, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Stevenson.
Onuscheck describes Fritz, who as a core leader helps develop the curricular vision in the communications arts division, as a born teacher and a role model for the profession.
Freshman Amy Arbus seeks assistance rewriting an essay on the classic "To Kill A Mockingbird," and is quizzed by Fritz on the role of reputation in the story.
"He makes it so much fun. He relates everything to the real world so it's not like learning boring English stuff," Arbus said.
Though an authority figure, Fritz doesn't talk down to students, Kamp adds.
"He talks to you like an equal," she said.
On another recent before-class session, Fritz worked with two students on an essay and discussed ACT exams with a third. A fourth stopped to share his joy at being accepted at Washington University.
Fritz, who has taught at Stevenson since 1990, described it as "messy, chaotic, fun, important and absurd -- just a typical morning in my room." Perhaps 75 pennants from universities across the country line the perimeter of the classroom. They are like locator maps for those who came before and a source of pride for Fritz. A plaque in the front of the room summarizes his style: "Enter as strangers. Leave as friends."
"I never want a student of mine to feel like they were my job -- and that the only reason I worked with them is because I had to," Fritz said. "The kids know that I form communities, as not a day goes by when a previous student pokes his or her head in the room to say hello. A disruption to the learning? Not at all -- a reinforcement of the community that outlasts the official learning."
That the animated communication arts teacher is available before class, during lunch, after school or at other times is a trademark that has cemented his standing as someone who genuinely cares for students as individuals.
"Walking with Bill in the Stevenson corridors is an adventure in smiles and waves," said Marti Goldzwig, a volunteer who has worked for several years with Fritz on Stevenson's Gay-Straight Alliance club.
One former colleague said accompanying Fritz is like escorting a rock star down Michigan Avenue because he is so frequently stopped by students who want to say hello.
"He's such a kind and caring man. You can tell he loves being a teacher," said Deborah Kelly, who when dealing with her husband's brain surgery in 2011 turned to Fritz for support for her daughter, Miranda. He walked the halls with her and listened as she spoke about the situation, Kelly said.
"I needed to have someone she looked up to in school watching out for her," Kelly explained. "He truly cares about his students, and I think they know that."
He was selected by the Class of 2010 to speak at graduation as one of two teachers who had the most impact on their year. And this school year, he was one of 11 finalists for Illinois Teacher of the Year.
"They consistently create new strategies that keep students engaged and excited about learning and achieving," Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Gery J. Chico said last fall when the elite group was announced.
Fritz' teaching style embraces his philosophy that students should learn with a sense of humor, and laughter should be part of the classroom experience.
His specialty is extracting real-life lessons from the classics. During a recent class, for example, the study of "Macbeth" evolved into a discussion of destiny.
Pacing at the front of the room while listening intently, Fritz suddenly pops up with a question.
"Has anyone seen the movie 'Sliding Doors' with Gwyneth Paltrow? It's really cool. There are two complete destinies with different choices. It's great," he said, as the discussion turned to the question of whether family circumstances determine outcomes.
Besides teaching accelerated English courses for freshman and sophomores, Fritz coaches the Congressional debate team and moderates the Scholastic Bowl teams. For the past 10 years, he has been sponsor of the Gay Straight Alliance.
The school allowed the club to take a bus trip to Springfield during discussion of same-sex marriage, which since has become law in Illinois.
"We used it as a civics lesson on how to enact change. These lessons are timely and relevant," he said.
Long before anti-bullying campaigns, Fritz was a gay teen in high school with few friends. He ate alone. Kids would spit at him in the halls. During his junior year, he was befriended by an English teacher and the pair would discuss books, theater and subjects of the day at lunch in the teachers' lounge.
"The most powerful thing you do as a teacher is change lives, provide hope," Fritz said.
And even in his 24th year at Stevenson, the contagious enthusiasm hasn't waned.
"I'm no better than my first year. Kids have this perpetual cool way of observing things and that's what I love," said Fritz, 50. He said he finds the notion of ongoing improvement to be rejuvenating.
"I don't see any reason why I need to count down to retirement," he said.