Top teacher: Learning for Life instructor at Lisle High School helps students reach their potential

Ask Jen Milinki's students what they like about her, and there's no hesitation - she's the best.

“She's a very outstanding teacher,” said Zaylen Hubbard. “She makes my life good.”

Others echo similar sentiments, saying the Lisle High School Learning for Life program instructor connects with them, helps them learn and encourages them.

“She's fun,” adds Anthony Ramirez.

Milinki came to Lisle High School when it was looking for a way to bring back its students with significant disabilities. At the time, those students were participating in a program at another school. As a teacher in another district, Milinki spent part of her days in a similar program. She jumped at the chance to do the work full time and to create a new program.

“I was excited about it because I could do what I truly had a passion for full time,” said Milinki, who also serves as a Special Olympics coach and has coached many of her students.

  Lisle High School Learning for Life program instructor Jennifer Milinki and student Ryan Pszczola make a coffee drink at the Blue Lion Cafe in the commons area of the school. Paul Valade/

She developed the school's Learning for Life program and started with just two students. Today, she has nine students of varied abilities. Some stay with her for all their classes and others come in for just a few. She also helped launch a similar program at the middle school level in Lisle Community Unit School District 202.

“She has been able to open up opportunities for our students with disabilities,” said Jennifer Zimmerman, assistant principal for student services at Lisle High School.

Though Milinki appears to be a natural at what she does, teaching was not her first choice.

  Lisle High School Learning for Life program instructor Jennifer Milinki, left, watches student Anthony Ramirez prepare a coffee drink at the coffee bar in the commons area of the school. Milinki and the program provides work experiences and life skills to the students. Paul Valade/

After high school, she went to work and eventually landed a job at a Fortune 500 financial institution. She had a good job and was moving her way up the ranks. But she wasn't happy with her career, and the words of a high school English teacher who encouraged her to go to college had stayed with her.

“I did some soul searching, and I ended up going back to school,” she said, adding that she found her passion in education. “I'm very fortunate ... I'm so glad I made that change.”

Her motto - a positive attitude and a little goofiness can make all the difference - can be seen in how she teaches. She connects with her students on a personal level. Whether it's through a funny impersonation, talking up a writing assignment or sharing her students' excitement when they achieve a goal, Milinki works to create a family-like atmosphere to bring her students together.

The Learning for Life program allows her to play to her students' strengths and challenge them to grow. Traditional courses are taught through the lens of life skills, Milinki said. For example, students learn math skills as they keep track of an inventory of various items needed for other programs in the school. A mock apartment set up in a room adjacent to Milinki's classroom allows students to learn skills they'll need for independent living. Older students work with Milinki to find jobs in the community to put their life skills to work.

  Lisle High School Learning for Life program instructor Jennifer Milinki, second from left, works with students during the recent grand opening of the Blue Lion Cafe in the commons area of the school. The cafe was born out of a brainstorming session in Milinki's class. Paul Valade/

“I get to come to work every day and help students become independent adults,” she said. “I get to see students take little steps into a big picture.

“I love what I do because I cannot only see the growth of my kids, but I can also see their potential,” she added.

Her passion to see students succeed helped launch the Blue Lion Cafe. The portable cafe, which opened in October, offers a menu of coffee, lemonade, tea, hot chocolate and other treats. The idea for the cafe came out of a brainstorming session a couple of years ago. Milinki asked her students to identify a problem on campus they could help solve and the discussion turned to teachers and coffee.

Milinki joked about getting better coffee in school. From there, the idea of a coffee cart was born. Milinki's students took orders, filled the orders and delivered coffee a few times throughout the semester to teachers. Soon, other students were asking if they could place orders, and Milinki's students wanted to expand. COVID put the plan on hold for a while, but last month the Blue Lion Cafe held its grand opening, offering teachers and students a caffeine break and treats.

But it's more than just a coffee shop. It gives her students a chance to put math, social, verbal and other skills to use.

“This is a job ... an opportunity for our kids to learn,” Milinki said.

  Lisle High School junior Estefany Sanchez, left, orders a beverage at the Blue Lion Cafe in the school's commons area. Learning for Life program instructor Jennifer Milinki, second from right, works with students in the program at the coffee bar. Paul Valade/

She's quick to note the learning opportunities are not just limited to her students. Students in a vocational program designed and built the carts for the cafe, art students designed the logo, and some students served as peer buddies on opening day to help out.

That collaboration is carried over into Milinki's classroom, whether it's working with other classes for the Blue Lion Cafe, planning a field trip with another class or working to develop an adaptive PE program that meets her students' needs but also pairs them up with a peer mentor or peer leader.

“We're not that stereotype that used to be those kids down the hallway,” Milinki said. “We are a part of this school ... we make those connections.”

Others agreed, saying Milinki's passion for her students and making those connections between her students and the world around them is what helps make the Learning for Life program a success.

“She looks for ways to make sure they are a part of the community and not a separate program,” Zimmerman said.

And much like any parent would take pride in their child's success, Milinki beams when talking about her students and their achievements. She stays in touch with several of her former students and parents.

“She's extremely dedicated to doing what's best for her students,” said Sandi Skonieczny, whose son Jacob is a senior at Lisle High School and in the Learning for Life program. “She meets everyone's needs and challenges them.”

  Lisle High School Learning for Life program instructor Jennifer Milinki, second from left, and paraprofessional Jackie Hauger, second from right, work with students at the Blue Lion Cafe, from left, Tea'ria Perkins, Zaylen Hubbard, Jacob Skonieczny, Jacob McMahan, Quinn McConville, Andrew Grace, Ryan Pszczola and Anthony Ramirez. Paul Valade/

Tips from a great teacher

Jen Milinki found her passion after leaving a job at a Fortune 50 company and returning to school to become a teacher. She started the Learning for Life program at Lisle High School, a program that helps students with significant disabilities.

Here are some words of advice Milinki offers to other teachers:

Patience and flexibility can go a long way. Even on the most difficult days, these two things can make all the difference.

Show interests in your students and their lives. Show them you are listening. Include what's important to them in your lessons and daily activities. By doing so, you can create an amazing culture, much like a family, in your classroom.

Celebrate the little things; sometimes the littlest things are monumental to your student.

Show your students you are human. If you mess up, own it. If you are sad, let them understand why. If you are excited, show it. Showing your students the different sides of you not only will help them navigate their own feelings, but will also let them know it is all right to mess up, be sad and get excited.

Have a bag of tricks. Then, have a bag of tricks for your bag of tricks ... and, just in case, have a bag of tricks for that bag as well.

Curriculum vitae: Jen Milinki

Name: Jen Milinki

School: Lisle High School

Occupation: Learning for Life instructor

Age: 39

Residence: Batavia

Education: Bachelor of Science in Special Education from Northern Illinois University (graduated magna cum laude); Master of Arts in Educational Technology/Technology Specialist from Concordia University (graduated summa cum laude)

Work history: Paraprofessional at Lake Park High School, spring 2010; special education teacher (algebra, pre-algebra), Lake Park High School, 2010-2011; special education teacher (American Literature, reading and life skills) at Burlington Central High School, 2011-2013; Learning for Life instructor at Lisle High School, 2013 to present.

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