Top teacher: Naperville fourth grade teacher thrilled with transition back to the classroom

David Pittman felt a mix of excitement and terror as he returned to the classroom on the first day of the school year.

But he knew he was ready.

"I felt like a very comfortable rookie," he said.

Pittman is far from a rookie. Even though he was back in front of students for the first time in six years, he brought a wealth of experience when he was hired last spring as a fourth grade teacher at Naper Elementary School in Naperville.

He'd been an elementary teacher in several districts before becoming a learning support coach in Naperville Unit District 203. Pittman also had a background in acting and improv, which are critical skills for teachers needing to think on their feet and constantly be "on" in front of young students.

Naper Elementary Principal Tracy Dvorchak recognized his potential while remembering the first time she saw Pittman's resume when he was hired as a district LSC.

"His resume is just jaw-dropping," she said. "I've never seen a time where kids needed quality educators more, and he's just that."

When Pittman applied for the fourth grade teaching position at Naper Elementary, Dvorchak invited him for what began as an interview but developed into an in-depth pedagogical discussion.

"It was an hour-and-a-half conversation," Dvorchak said. "It was very apparent that we were on the exact same page about how school should feel for kids, and relationship building, and how important climate and culture are in the classroom and the school."

As an LSC at Highlands Elementary School, Pittman partnered with teachers to provide assistance in professional development. But after years of helping other teachers hone their skills, it was time for Pittman to start teaching again.

"After some soul searching, I decided I needed to get back into the classroom," Pittman said. "It was a long gap, but the kids make it all worth it. Ten-year-olds are awesome."

Pittman immediately immersed himself into the Naper Elementary culture. He's mentoring a fellow teacher. He started an improv club. He's helping with the school's FIRST LEGO League, which guides students through STEM learning.

He couldn't wait to hit the ground running, spending much of the summer learning everything he could about the school and curriculum. Pittman was early in setting up his classroom, but also made sure to leave ample opportunity for the students to share in the process and allow their voices to be heard.

"I was extremely excited and terrified at the same time on that first day," he said. "Definitely some rust I had to knock off, but I knew that going in."

Pittman grew up in Indiana and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in acting from Northern Illinois University. Teaching was nowhere on his radar as he built his improv skills and sought work on the stage while making ends meet through various jobs.

Teaching at a drama camp in Evanston changed his mindset. He discovered a teacher program at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Indiana, and his career path was settled. Combining a master's degree with an Educational Leadership degree from North Central College was the next step.

Pittman utilizes his entire toolbox in the classroom. He's prepared, but he also relies on his improv ability to keep students engaged.

"The basic tenet of improv is 'yes, and,'" he said. "That means you accept what someone gives you and you add on to it. Kids might get things wrong, but that's a place to build from."

He's with the same students throughout the day, weaving through a routine of reading, math, word study, writing, science and more. But he's always conscious of checking in with students to ensure everything's on track.

After only a few days, Pittman knew he'd made the right decision to return to teaching.

"It was a winding road getting here," he said. "And I'm going to continue to look for new opportunities to stretch and grow."

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Curriculum vitae

Name: David Pittman

School: Naper Elementary School

Occupation: Fourth-grade teacher

Residence: Bolingbrook

Age: 41

Education: Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting, Northern Illinois University; Master of Arts in Teaching, Calumet College of St. Joseph, Indiana; Educational Leadership degree, North Central College

Previous work experience: Teacher at East Chicago Lighthouse Charter School in Indiana; fourth-grade teacher at Krug Elementary School in East Aurora; fourth-grade teacher at Meadowview Elementary School in Woodridge; instructional coach at Willow Creek Elementary School in Woodridge; learning support coach at Highlands Elementary School in Naperville; fourth-grade teacher at Naper Elementary School in Naperville

• • •

Tips from a great teacher

• Build from the students: Make the students a part of creating the classroom atmosphere.

• Go slow to go fast: Practice classroom routines during the first few weeks to establish fluidity for the entire school year.

• Set reminders: Even in the thick of the school year, take time to appreciate classroom accomplishments.

• Think through the kids' lenses: Acknowledge student voices to build a strong classroom atmosphere.

• Beware of imagined pressure: Remember, teaching is an imperfect profession.

  After spending several years as a learning support coach, David Pittman made a seamless transition back to the classroom as a fourth grade teacher at Naper Elementary School in Naperville. Brian Hill/
  From the improv stage to the classroom, fourth grade teacher David Pittman took a winding road before settling in this school year at Naper Elementary School. Brian Hill/
  David Pittman was a teacher for several years before becoming a learning support coach in Naperville Unit District 203. Now he's back in the classroom as a fourth grade teacher at Naper Elementary School in Naperville. Brian Hill/
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