'This just feels right': Streamwood teacher trades marketing career for a classroom

Meagen Balzer was enjoying life as a 20-something advertising and public relations executive in Chicago.

A conversation with her father changed everything.

"I told my dad I felt like a teacher with all these new college graduates," she said. "I was only in my 20s myself, but I was teaching them how to write and learn other elements of their jobs. My dad said, 'I always thought you should have been a teacher.'"

"And that was all I needed," she said. "Why was I not teaching? I enjoy the craft of writing. I enjoy reading. I enjoy all of it."

  Streamwood High School teacher Meagen Balzer works with students in her Incubator classroom as they develop new business ideas. Brian Hill/

Tradia> a rising business career for a classroom, Balzer, an Elgin High School graduate, returned to Elgin Area School District U-46 to become an English teacher in the World Languages and International Studies Academy at Streamwood High School. Seventeen years later - after briefly moving back home to Bartlett to earn a master's degree in education - she's still at Streamwood.

Starting last school year, Balzer tapped into her previous career by also becoming a business teacher. As part of the burgeoning LEAD Academy at Streamwood, which will be replacing the World Languages and International Studies Academy, she guides juniors through an Incubator program to develop entrepreneurial ideas they pitch to area business leaders.

"The willingness and dedication she has to give her time and resources to others is what schools need now more than ever," said Streamwood Principal Jennifer VanDeusen. "The attention she dedicates to her students is also mirrored in the dedication she offers to her colleagues. Meagen is the true definition of an educator supporting the school community."

While Balzer doesn't miss her pressure-packed marketing career, she can't resist piling on responsibilities to her daily teaching routine. In addition to her two Incubator classes, freshman English class and Global Studies class, she's also involved with numerous activities, including her role as School Improvement chair and dance coach at Bartlett High School.

Close to her heart, though, is the Incubator program, which is already having a positive impact on students in just its second year. Last year's students, now seniors, are implementing their business ideas in the real world through the school's Accelerator program.

"Right away, you can tell she enjoys what she does for a living," junior Maria Solis said. "She has been one of my biggest inspirations in becoming a teacher myself, because even in times when the classroom setting gets stressful, she always finds a way to prosper through it all and puts her students first, always."

  Meagen Balzer, an Elgin High School graduate, returned to her home district to become an English and business teacher at Streamwood High School. Brian Hill/

Balzer begins the yearlong Incubator program in the fall by helping her juniors through ideation and finding a problem that requires a business solution. Ideas this year include an app for high schoolers and an online winter weather shop for construction workers.

The students learn to develop a business model, which lays the foundation for them to work independently within their groups. By the end of the school year, they're ready to pitch their ideas to local businesses, with the possibility of a financial investment to execute the plan as seniors in the Accelerator program.

"I provide the structure and the foundation, but it's an autonomous class," Balzer said. "They have to work with each other and set their own deadlines. It's all on them based on the outline I give them."

Balzer said she "bounces" from group to group during class to make sure there aren't any major problems that need addressing. The students appreciate her ability to balance assistance with letting them find their own way through an issue.

"The thing I like the most about all of Ms. Balzer's classes is that she makes it feel like a community," junior Tiare Saucedo said. "She tries her hardest to make sure that we are all comfortable enough to ask her any questions we may need answered, and makes sure that we understand what is being assigned."

The LEAD Academy, which stands for Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Action and Design, already is showing signs of growth as more eighth graders apply to be part of it. Balzer's colleagues and students credit her stewardship of the Incubator program with spurring the LEAD Academy's success.

Balzer said she frequently senses the eagerness of younger students to become part of the Incubator program. She said freshmen are already approaching her with business ideas they aim to develop in two years.

It's further confirmation that Balzer made the right decision to switch careers.

"I always joke about what I'm going to be when I grow up, but this just feels right," Balzer said. "This feels like what I'm supposed to be doing."

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Curriculum vitae

Name: Meagen Balzer

School: Streamwood High School

Occupation: English and business teacher

Age: 46

Residence: Bartlett

Education: Bachelor of Communication from Marquette University; Master of Arts in Education from Roosevelt University

Work history: Senior account executive in advertising and public relations before shifting to teaching in 2005

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Tips from top teacher

Be reflective: Taking time every day to be reflective about what happened in the classroom - how they're achieving their goals, how they're helping students learn - is important for teachers.

Be flexible: The idea that we can be planned out three or four weeks ahead of time may sound ideal, but it's really not demonstrating a teacher's flexibility and our responsiveness to our students' needs.

Be kind: It's one thing to be a warm and caring teacher, but you still need to hold students to expectations and accountability. I always tell my students it's tough love. They need to learn lifelong skills and sometimes saying "no" is the best thing you can do for them.

Be collaborative: I try to teach my students to be collaborative and learn from each other, but it's just as important for teachers. We need that interaction, and we need to work with other teachers so that we can bring fresh ideas and growth into our classroom.

Be part of a positive support system: I'm always looking for people to grow with and to grow with me. There's enough naysaying in education today that you really need to release those people so you're not caught up in the negativity.

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