Top Teacher: Maine East High's Phil Ash encourages creativity in his radio and TV production classes

Students who take teacher Phil Ash's television and radio production classes at Maine East High School in Park Ridge have the benefit of learning from someone with solid real-world experience.

Before turning to teaching, Ash worked as a postproduction manager and story producer on episodic reality programs in Burbank, California - the epicenter of the TV industry.

"At the time, I had no idea that my work was creating the foundation of my current teaching career," Ash said.

Ash, 44, of Niles, has been at Maine East since 2012. In addition to teaching a pair of radio and TV classes and U.S. history, Ash oversees live sports and performing arts broadcasts as the school's television production coordinator, and he manages Maine East's student-run radio station, WMTH 90.5 FM.

Ash also produces the school's weekly Blue Demon News program.

"I love being around teenagers and giving them opportunities to be creative," he said. "My students never cease to surprise and inspire me with their media projects. They represent the cutting edge of media and how it continues to evolve within our culture."

Ash grew up in Somonauk in north-central Illinois. After earning a bachelor's degree in theater and history at Eastern Illinois University, he headed west to Los Angeles to be an actor.

But within a couple years, he decided he didn't have the passion or discipline for the craft, and he focused on reality TV production instead.

For about seven years, Ash worked for Varuna Entertainment in California on series for the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, Country Music Television and more. His shows included "Trick My Truck," "Pawn Queens," "Deep Sea Salvage" and "What a Tool."

"Most of our seasons were one and done," he said.

Then came a shift to teaching. The field was a familiar one for Ash.

"My mother was a second-grade teacher," he said. "And, like so many other educators, I was inspired by the teachers who taught me. I saw their passion and their patience. Above all, it looked like they had a lot of fun."

Ash worked as a long-term substitute teacher at Wheeling High School and New Trier High in Winnetka before joining the Maine East staff.

He subsequently earned a master's degree at Concordia University Chicago.

Because cellphones are ubiquitous, it's never been easier to create audiovisual content, Ash said. Doing it in a way that's professional and engages audiences, however, is the trick.

"It requires creativity and focus across all forms of artistic mediums - photography, lighting, artistic composition, music, creative writing, and on and on," he said. "I feel like my job is to provide an educational foundation ... and then give them creative space."

Ash is particularly proud of the hype videos students have created to promote Maine East athletic teams and clubs. The relatively short videos, especially, show off the teens' editing skills.

"Editing a sizzle reel is such an individual artistic expression," Ash said. "There are very few rules, so I really got to see the artistic decision making of all of my students."

Maine East Principal Melissa Pikul said Ash does "an exceptional job" overseeing the Blue Demon News program.

"It is student led and student produced, allowing for some very tangible career-related experience," Pikul said.

Of course, teaching kids about media can be challenging when the subject of the class is constantly evolving. Media sensibilities continuously change, too.

"How I perceive media and how I determine what's good and professional is vastly different from how teenagers perceive those same things," Ash explained. "Finding the balance between what's tried and true versus what's cutting edge is a difficult needle to thread."

The constantly expanding internet creates opportunities and hazards for students as well.

"The key is not to be afraid of it," Ash said. "I'm currently looking into AI and how that impacts media production. It's a challenge to not get complacent."

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Tips from a top teacher

• Get to know your students and let them get to know you. Ask after them and let them know you care.

• Allow students the space to struggle. Struggling is where the learning happens. Support and provide them feedback along the way.

• Make the time with your students the best part of your day and let them know it. The rest of the job is the work. The time with the students should be the joy.

• • •

Curriculum vitae: Phil Ash

Age: 44

Residence: Niles

Occupation: Television and radio teacher at Maine East High School in Park Ridge

Education: Bachelor's degree in theater and history from Eastern Illinois University; master's degree in differentiated instruction from Concordia University

Current classes: Radio and Television Production, Advanced TV/Film, U.S. History

Activities: Television production coordinator, campus radio station manager and Blue Demon News coordinator

  Maine East High School teacher Phil Ash teaches his students about a filmmaking effect called a dolly zoom. The former TV story producer has been teaching media classes at the Park Ridge School since 2012. Brian Hill/
  Maine East High School teacher Phil Ash works with student Suhas Padiyar. A former TV industry staffer, Ash teaches radio and TV classes at Maine East. Brian Hill/
  Maine East High School teacher Phil Ash works with his students. Before turning to teaching, Ash worked as a postproduction manager and story producer in California. Brian Hill/
  Maine East High School teacher Phil Ash works with students at the Park Ridge school. Brian Hill/
  A Maine East High School student edits a video in one of teacher Phil Ash's classes. Brian Hill/
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