Growing up in a small community in Northern Michigan, Deb Perryman always wanted to teach in a school with a lot of diversity.
"That was one of the things that first drew me to Elgin High School, because I knew it was very diverse," said the 48-year-old Streamwood resident.
Perryman, who has taught biology and environmental science at Elgin High for nearly 21 years, said her first year teaching at the school was overwhelming.
"It was really my first experience (with diversity). Other than being the only girl in college in a lot of my science classes, that was the first time that I was a minority in a situation," she said.
"I loved it, but I didn't feel confident. I was constantly checking myself, 'Am I doing things right, am I saying things right?'"
Perryman bridged that cultural gap by listening to her students about what interests them and engaging them through service projects and community-based learning.
"I've been doing service learning out of necessity without knowing that it had a title," said Perryman, who was dubbed the 2014 Environmental Educator of the Year earlier this year.
"It's just a much more enriching experience. You are bringing real life and purpose to your curriculum for the students. They buy into it."
It helped Perryman develop much closer relationships with her students and gain their trust.
Perryman learned to be resourceful and creative in the classroom early on in her teaching career.
Her first job out of college was at an alternative school in South Carolina, where she taught biology, chemistry, physics, environmental science, and forest field and stream. The experimental vocational school had been open only a couple of years.
"These were the kids who could not make it in a traditional school setting," Perryman said. "I had desks with no lab. I had no textbooks for anything, no resources, no computer, not even a beaker. I had a double wide trailer with a board. It was really hard."
The school had a natural trail nearby. With support from the principal, Perryman created her first outdoor teaching laboratory.
"It was out of necessity," Perryman said. "I was a first-year teacher and I was the only science teacher. What we did have going for us was a lot of land. There was a golf course. There was an aqua culture class program, woodlands and open space. I just created everything on my own … I just tried to teach the traditional (material) using the books that I had, and provided and made activities for those students."
That's where Perryman developed her teaching style. She said she has been fortunate enough to work in schools where she was able to pursue her ideas, be creative, and try new things.
"Any idea that we had, that students wanted to do, we were able to do. No principal or administrator has ever said 'no' to me," Perryman said. "It's just a really supportive place. I feel like I've been allowed to really do what's best in education … because I've been encouraged to take risks."
Perryman said her experience using nature as a teaching tool "was really effective." It was an experiment she was able to expand on at Elgin High.
When she first visited the school for her job interview, Perryman's eyes were immediately drawn to the natural area behind the campus.
Perryman was given carte blanche to design her classroom curriculum and use the roughly 40 acres of natural areas next to the school as an instructional tool.
"I started teaching with no resources, with nothing, so I am used to building everything from the bottom," she said. "I just learned early that when you build it and you bring in community, it's an interactive, fun process."
Perryman started out by bringing in preschool students to tour the nature trail, with her own students leading the field trip and planning activities with the visitors.
Today, Elgin High offers a Mighty Acorns program that teaches fourth- through sixth-graders about conservation stewardship. Over the years, Perryman's students have conducted community workshops to present their research and participated in community education projects.
She and her students were instrumental in starting the Poplar Creek Watershed Planning Committee and helped municipalities get funding for creating stormwater education plans. Her biology students also proposed a tree preservation ordinance to the city of Elgin.
It was a proud moment for Perryman to see the families of "at-risk" students supporting their efforts at the city council meeting where they made the ordinance presentation.
"There were parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They were taking pictures and smiling. They were there to support their kids," she said. "That was really a huge lesson for me to get away from the stereotype of, 'if you are poor, your parents don't care about you.'"
For the last 20 years, Perryman's environmental science students have worked to restore the school's oak woodlands, which are more endangered than tropical rain forests. Under her guidance, students are helping create a prairie, butterfly and hummingbird gardens. They conduct prescribed burns, harvest seeds in the fall before each burn and scatter them across the land again before winter sets in so the prairie plants resurface in the spring.
The 40 acres serve as an ecological treasure trove for students to explore and learn. They include a fen -- a wetland created by mineral-rich surface water or ground water and inhabited by unique plants and animals -- a flood plain and creek. The students also lead field trips there for area elementary schools, allowing them an opportunity to teach what they have learned in class.
Perryman was recently recognized by state Rep. Fred Crespo for her latest class project spearheading an advocacy campaign about "Miss Martha," the last passenger pigeon on the planet that died 100 years ago, to promote protecting biodiversity. The campaign resulted in Gov. Pat Quinn naming September "The Month of the Passenger Pigeon." Perryman's students are working with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's office to push Congress and President Barack Obama to declare 2014 the year of the passenger pigeon.
Elgin High's environmental students are organizing a national biodiversity teach-in to mark the 100th anniversary of Miss Martha's death this September. It will involve a series of webinars with national speakers on biodiversity topics.
Perryman uses technology to draw students in and pulls in experts in the field, scientists, professionals, legislators and grass-roots activists to mentor her students.
"I'm always looking for a way to go outside of a book, looking for a way to bring in the real world," she said.
"What excites me about environmental science is that it's solvable. These seem really big issues, but everybody has a role in it. It's less frightening for (students) when they see that people are working on it and they see that they can contribute to the solutions."