Listen to Amy Walsh talk about teaching for, oh, maybe two minutes, and you can sense the energy, the commitment, the passion.
It's the kind of feeling you get when you happen across someone who's doing exactly what they want to do in exactly the right setting and, best of all, you know they're really, really good at it.
Watch Walsh work in Bensenville Elementary District 2 and you'd swear she was destined to spend her career in a classroom long before she was inspired to do just that by a remarkable fifth-grade teacher in Prospect Heights.
See the world through Walsh's eyes and you find yourself sharing her joy when her fourth-graders grasp a difficult concept or buy into her message of teamwork, caring and togetherness.
"I love that moment when kids understand something, when you see that light in their eyes," she says.
Talk to Walsh's colleagues and they'll tell you they're amazed by how she interacts with kids, parents and her peers. She's a teacher who makes sure her students and their families know they have her full support, both inside and outside the classroom.
"She's magic, she really is," says Nicole Robinson, the co-principal at Tioga Elementary School who hired Walsh four years ago.
Step back to take all that in and you'll think, geez, somebody really should nominate this woman for some kind of award.
Teacher of Year
There are roughly 130,000 teachers working in the state, and this year 11 of them have been selected as Teacher of the Year finalists by the Illinois State Board of Education as part of its Those Who Excel educator recognition program. The winner will be announced at a banquet Saturday, Oct. 19, in Normal.
Of those finalists, only one is from a DuPage County school district. Her name is Amy Walsh, and if you catch a glimpse of her that night, don't be surprised if she looks as uneasy as a second-grader at her first spelling bee.
"This is the least likely thing she would ever imagine being a part of," says her mother, Jean Walsh, who is wrapping up a 33-year teaching career of her own in Bensenville.
"My other two daughters were the ones who were always on the stage. Amy would be on the tech crew because she didn't want the spotlight."
Now in her eighth year as a teacher, the past four in Bensenville, Walsh has stepped out of the wings and smack-dab onto center stage in her new role as one of two "consulting teachers" in District 2. She and fellow instructor Robyn Ayers are playing starring roles in preparing the district and its teachers to implement the new Common Core State Standards.
In that position, Walsh has been helping to rewrite portions of the district's curriculum and is working directly with first-year teachers to help them find their footing and prepare new classroom strategies.
"Amy is changing how we teach literacy and math," Robinson says, "and how we can help students meet these standards in the best way."
Walsh admits she's a lot more comfortable working with fellow teachers or facing a room full of fourth-graders than she'll be at the awards banquet. But while she says all the right things about being honored just to be nominated for Teacher of the Year, don't think for a minute that means she doesn't want to win.
"Me winning is Bensenville winning," she says. "I couldn't be here without my colleagues and my mentors and all the support I've been given. It would be such a team win for Bensenville."
Win or lose, teaching will remain what defines Walsh.
Her mom says Amy first started voicing an interest in the occupation in fifth grade, and it's no accident it was the same year she found herself in Mrs. Warden's class at Eisenhower School in Prospect Heights.
It's funny because even today Amy doesn't know Mrs. Warden's first name. It's funnier still because she occasionally sees the woman who inspired her career around her former hometown of Arlington Heights and finds herself saying, "Hello, Mrs. Warden."
Mrs. Warden's first name really wasn't important. What was important was her attitude and her approach in the classroom and how all that affected young Amy.
"She had a passion and a drive for what she did," says Walsh, now 29 and living in Hanover Park. "Every single day was something new."
Looking back on it, Mrs. Warden's dedication was all the more remarkable because she was preparing to retire at the end of that school year.
"I thought to myself, if she can still love her job that much on her last day as a teacher, it's a field I want to get into," Walsh says.
Her mom says she initially was surprised by Amy's job choice.
"Amy has always been very quiet and very conservative, and I wondered how that would play in the classroom," Jean Walsh says.
She wonders no more.
Ask around about what makes Amy Walsh special and the stories come pouring out like hot syrup on a cold day.
There was the time one of her student's families was forced from their home for several months after a water pipe burst. It was Amy who helped organize a fundraiser and Amy who pulled together some kind of gift or treat for the family every weekend and then brought it to school on Monday.
Or the time she discovered a student's loved ones had a regular "family date night" at a Barnes and Noble and she showed up to have a cup of coffee and spend an hour or so with them.
Or maybe the time when a parent of a child who was in one of Amy's classes several years ago in another district called Robinson just to tell her how lucky Tioga School was to have such a high-quality teacher.
"She makes a lasting impression on kids and parents," Robinson says. "She finds out what makes each kid tick and then incorporates it into her lesson. She takes the time to get to know each student. Parents call me to thank me for putting their child in her class."
Putting her students first seems embedded in Walsh's teaching DNA.
She believes teachers should spend the first three weeks of any school year focusing on building a relationship and environment with their students. Establishing that basic trust in the early stages is more important than any individual lesson.
"You have to get to know the kids on a personal level," she says. "You need those relationships."
"She has a key insight into the child behind the child," her mom says. "Those kids know when they leave her classroom she'll still be there for them. She's there for life."
Had there not been a population shift in Carol Stream Elementary District 93, Amy Walsh may have never found her way to a Bensenville classroom.
She started her teaching career in 2006 in Carol Stream and was happy there for four years before the district was forced to lay off its nontenured teachers.
Many of them would later be hired back, but Walsh was taking no chances and applied in Bensenville, where she had worked the summer after graduating from Augustana College.
Robinson says she had heard about "this fabulous teacher" and was eager to interview her for a position.
When the two of them sat down, Robinson was very, very impressed. Most teaching candidates try to dazzle you with their verbal footwork, she says. Walsh was different.
"She was direct and she knew what she was talking about," Robinson says.
Walsh remembers it much the same way.
"I love what I do and I can talk it up," she says, "but I'd rather just be straightforward and to the point."
When it came time to tell her bosses in District 93 she was leaving for Bensenville, she took the same approach.
"At the end of the day," she told them, "I just want to teach."
As she prepares for this weekend's banquet, it's hard to argue with her choice.
Ask those who know her and they'll tell you the honor is richly deserved and will serve only to spur Amy on to bigger and better things in education.
"Many children will be lucky to have had her as their teacher," Jean Walsh says. "She was just meant to do this."
And who knows, maybe she was meant to win the Teacher of the Year honor, too.
As Walsh looks ahead, she can't help thinking back to that fifth-grade classroom at Eisenhower School and the teacher with the elusive first name who helped shape her future.
"I hope somebody who is just starting their career will someday think of me like I remember Mrs. Warden," she says. "I would like that."
About the selection ...
The 11 finalists in the Illinois State Board of Education's "Those Who Excel" recognition program were selected by a committee of administrators, teachers and representatives from educational service personnel, student support personnel and past Illinois Teacher of the Year winners. That panel reviewed roughly 200 nominations this year.
Each nomination is reviewed and scored three times based on personal background information, the nominating recommendation and letters of support from colleagues, parents and students. Nominees also must respond to questions focusing on student success, collaboration, continuous learning and leadership.
The scores are then compiled and averaged to determine one of three levels of recognition: Excellence, Merit or Recognition.
Teachers who receive an Award of Excellence are finalists for the Teacher of the Year honor. Illinois has named a state Teacher of the Year since the mid-1950s and the Illinois State Board of Education became involved in the process in 1970.