Top Teachers: Hersey science and theater teachers pair up for real-world lesson right out of a Seinfeld episode

Chairs lined either side of the hallway outside Room 137 at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, while inside the classroom, an old sewing room that's since been converted to a health sciences lab, students readied their stethoscopes and doctor's charts.

In walked student actor Cameron Foote, clutching a cane in one hand and the arm of classmate Gina Raimondi in the other.

“Watch your step, Dad,” she says.

They walk to the table stationed by Vicky Filatov.

“Hi, my name is Dr. Filatov. How are you feeling today?”

  John Hersey High School science teacher Kelley Pataky teamed with a colleague in the theater department to create "John Hersey Medical Center," in which Introduction to Health Care students were doctors and Acting I-VIII students were patients. Brian Hill/

On this recent Wednesday morning, hallway served as waiting room and classroom was doctor's office in a scene more reminiscent of a “Seinfeld” episode than a public high school in Arlington Heights.

It's the creation of Kelley Pataky, who teaches Introduction to Health Care, and Lara Becker, who teaches Acting I-VIII. Both have spent most of their careers at the school and aren't afraid to take creative chances with their teaching in ways that could benefit student learning.

For Pataky, no longer is it all about rote memorization of medical terminology for exams.

“It was pretty much just, 'Here's the book,' and now this,” she said. “It's very hands on.”

Becker, too, values real-world learning experiences, always searching for ways to make students see how lessons can apply beyond the classroom.

“When I do talk to parents and community members about what I teach, they often associate acting with, 'Oh, you have to study Shakespeare, the classics' - which is important, I agree - but there's other things that we're building,” she says. “Leadership, working in groups, communication, listening - all those things that aren't necessarily on a test, per se.”

  Students at John Hersey High School collaborated for a mock doctor's office visit within the school's health sciences classroom last week. It's the brainchild of teachers Lara Becker and Kelley Pataky. Brian Hill/

The mock doctor's office visit - involving 25 of Pataky's health care students and 27 of Becker's acting students - is their latest outside-the-box lesson plan.

Becker got the idea years ago, while still a new teacher at a Chicago high school, when the hospital across the street asked if some of her acting students could perform for medical interns in training.

“They were given little scripts by the hospital and off they went. So that was sort of the file of possible lesson plans for me,” Becker said. “And it wasn't until this year that I approached Kelley and said, 'Would you be interested in this?'”

Much like the “Seinfeld” episode with Kramer and his friend Mickey, companies do hire actors to simulate symptoms for medical professionals.

And at Hersey, at least, both teachers said it's not uncommon for teachers to collaborate on interdisciplinary learning experiences.

Still, the combined first period class inside the health sciences classroom - renamed John Hersey Medical Center for the morning - was unique, compared to what students are used to on a regular day.

“It was definitely different, because we had to create these characters with no knowledge as to what the other students we were working with were going to be like,” said Foote, a sophomore in the acting class.

  A student checks the vitals of a classmate during an interdisciplinary learning lesson last week at John Hersey High School. Brian Hill/

Foote played three roles during the 80-minute class period - and did costume changes for each one: a 12-year-old boy who thinks he has COVID-19, a 33-year-old man with swelling in his elbow, and an 83-year-old man having a stroke.

Playing the last role, he was paired with Raimondi, acting as the New York-accented daughter accompanying him to Filatov's office.

The health care students were told they had 20 possible conditions to choose from. Filatov asked about medical history and assessed symptoms before determining a stroke was the likely diagnosis.

Filatov, a freshman, said she wants to be a doctor, so the health care class is a perfect fit.

“If you're going to be a doctor, start here. I love this class,” she said. “I actually did not expect this to happen. I expected just sitting down with, like, boring things. It's actually so much more fun.”

  Students played the roles of doctors and patients for an outside-the-box learning experience at John Hersey High School, in which the Introduction to Health Care and Acting I-VIII classes were combined for one morning. Brian Hill/

Becker and Pataky each took a circuitous route to their careers in education.

Becker, who was always in two plays a semester in college, changed her major from nursing to education, seeing it as a way to manifest her love for theater and speech into a job.

And as a senior in college finishing up a degree in psychology, Pataky had an internship at the Shedd Aquarium, where she taught classes to K-8 field trip groups. After graduation, she did the same as a seasonal zookeeper at Brookfield Zoo. She says it was the education piece that got her hooked on teaching as a career.

Pataky is now in her 27th year at Hersey, and Becker in her 26th, and they both say they're happy to be there, citing the support from their colleagues and administration.

“Pataky's been here a while. I've been here a while. No, we don't see each other everyday. No, we don't have lunch. It was literally us walking and crossing to have this conversation,” Becker said of their classroom collaboration.

“But that's the kind of educators we have here. I can trust that she's going to come through. She can trust I'm going to come through, because that's the expectation.”

Curriculum vitae

Lara Becker

Residence: Des Plaines

Hometown: Chicago

Occupation: English, speech and theater teacher

Education: Bachelor of Arts in Speech/Theatre Education from Lewis University, Masters in Speech and Performing Arts from Northeastern University, Masters in Education Leadership from Olivet Nazarene University

Activities: Spring show theater director, Improvisation Club sponsor, Poetry Out Loud liaison

Kelley Pataky

Residence: Gilberts

Hometown: Arlington Heights

Occupation: Science teacher

Education: Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Valparaiso University, Masters of Education from DePaul University

Activities: Sponsor of Scrubs Club, which hosts speakers in health care, a biannual blood drive, making cards for kids in the hospital, and visits to memory care centers

Tips from top teachers

Lara Becker

Lifelong learner: You want your students to love learning as you do. Keep learning. Learn from taking courses, learn from joining groups that share common curriculum, learn from talking to the teachers who share the same content. Seek out advice from veteran teachers who share that spark and passion for teaching. Know that you are evolving just like your students.

Lead by example: Talk the talk and walk the walk. You want quality work. Produce quality work; it is an immense amount of work outside the classroom. You have to put in the time outside of the classroom so that the classroom is a place where you are confident about the lessons. No pain, no gain. Planning quality work is constant and challenging, especially in the first few years of teaching.

Reflect and decompress: Have grace for yourself. Teaching takes time and effort. Expectations are high, not only from you but from all stakeholders (community, students, administration, etc.) All teachers want amazing classroom experiences where dialogue, connections and true engagement are happening. The truth is, we are only humans teaching other humans. Some lessons do not go as anticipated. Some days you are not feeling well. Some classrooms fall short of enthusiasm for what you know is good. It's OK. Don't get comfortable with the hardship, but also have compassion for yourself. If a student struggles, you kindly and gently help them. Do the same for you.

Kelley Pataky

Always keep your students' best interests at the forefront of every lesson you plan.

Don't be afraid to take risks and try new things. Oftentimes, those activities end up being the most memorable and meaningful to your classes.

Be passionate about your content ... enthusiasm is contagious.

Treat your students with respect and fairness. That being said, fair does not necessarily mean equal.

If something isn't working, that's OK. You can always stop, pivot and regroup.

Organization and being well-prepared is paramount.

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