Abigail Wright honestly can’t remember wanting to become anything but a teacher.
“My mom has videos and picture of me playing school when I was in preschool, and all of my friends had to be the students. I was always the teacher,” says Wright, who grew up in suburban Carol Stream.
“I’ve always been super passionate about working with children,” she adds. “I worked at the public library in my hometown, and I did the reading program there. I work at Chick-fil-A, and I created the Family Night that we do there every week with kids.”
For Peytonn Weaver, the realization of teaching as a career didn’t come until her junior year of high school when a guidance counselor told her that her face practically glowed when she talked about volunteering to teach summer school and “tutoring a kid on the side for extra money.”
For Michelle Tofte, meanwhile, the passion to teach stems from her enjoyment of working with youth and her firm belief that “if you want to see change, be change.”
The three students in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction – all are senior Elementary Education majors – are closing in on their goal: Graduation looms in May 2021 while they student-teach this year, Tofte and Weaver in DeKalb School District 428 and Wright in the Rockford Public Schools.
Yet the three also are consciously furthering their preparation, and enhancing their marketability, through membership in the college’s still-new Educators Rising student organization.
Educators Rising is an initiative of PDK International dedicated to “cultivating a new generation of highly skilled educators by guiding young people on a path from high school through college and into their teaching careers.”
“By working with aspiring educators who reflect the demographics of their communities and who are passionate about serving those communities through public education,” the national organization’s mission statement continues, “Educators Rising is changing the face of teaching.”
Less than a year since its local launch at NIU in November 2019 – Wright is president and Weaver is vice president – the Huskie chapter is up nearly five dozen participants from a variety of programs and even from other NIU colleges and majors that include nursing and business.
“People are hungry for this kind of professional development. It’s an opportunity to grow in your profession, regardless of what it is,” says Jennifer Johnson, director of Teacher Preparation and Development and acting director of Student Services in the NIU College of Education.
“It’s student-led, with six officers, and I’m proud that’s it an opportunity for these students to experience this level of leadership and success,” Johnson adds. “They are the drivers of this organization. They are the ones making it what it is. They are the ones who bumped our membership up to 55.”
Opportunities for members abound, which prompted Johnson to gauge the level of interest last fall.
Those include the chance:
- to earn micro-credentials (digital badges) that are performance-based assessments that allow rising educators to showcase their growing skills;
- to complete anti-bias training;
- to compete for scholarships;
- to run for seats on the executive board; and,
- during normal times, to travel to annual conferences.
Wright, Weaver and Tofte, who is the recipient of a scholarship from PDK International, quickly jumped on board.
“I went to the first meeting, and I absolutely just fell in love with all of the things that is has to offer – micro-credentials, the opportunity to attend the national conference,” says Weaver, who is from Madison, Wis. “Jenny went to the conference last year, and she got to see so many different types of educators present on a wide variety of topics, and she made it sound like it was super-engaging. She got so much out of it.”
Membership in the local chapter is free, Weaver adds, while a “very reasonable” $25 pays for a year of national membership that unlocks resources such as lesson plans and practice tests.
As the local group meets virtually this semester through Microsoft Teams, members are participating in professional development, watching and discussing online TED talks and chatting about “different topics that are kind of controversial in education right now so that we see where we stand.”
Plans also are in motion to connect with DeKalb and Sycamore high schools to mentor students who are thinking about becoming teachers.
“It’s less about recruitment and more about engaging those students and opening their eyes to the whole field of education,” says Wright, who wishes her high school would have offered a club for future teachers. “It’s about educating younger students on what education is, all of the opportunities that education can lead to and how important good teachers really are.”
“When I first came to NIU, I had no idea really what I was getting myself into,” she says.
“I knew I wanted to change lives, and to be a person in a classroom where I could teach young kids the little simple things they were going to use down the road for the rest of their lives, but I didn’t really know how classes worked or what I would learn,” she adds. “I’m hoping to mentor to those high school students so that they at least have some sort of idea of what they’re getting themselves into.”
Joining Educators Rising shows that “we care more,” Wright says, “that we care so much about our students, the way we treat them and the way we teach them.”
“It demonstrates that we’re really dedicated to the field,” Weaver adds. “We always preach to our students to become lifelong learners, but we are lifelong learners ourselves. We are becoming engaged in the field, and we are doing all the professional development we can because we want to become the best people we can be.”
Tofte, who grew up in rural Caledonia, Ill., says it “comes down to developing us as professionals” equipped to enact “the changes we want to see in education that benefit everybody.”
“In the educational field, we’ve done a really good job of bridging that gap between teachers and parents, but between teachers and administration, and teachers and government, I feel like that there’s still a big gap,” Tofte says.
“I think Educators Rising – getting us into the professional development, getting us into the speaking, getting us into the national conference – gets our voices out there as educators,” she adds, “people with experience in the classroom who know what’s working, what’s not working and what we need to change, not just with our students, schools or communities but nationwide.”
Beyond the practical, Educators Rising also provides camaraderie and an environment where all voices are encouraged, heard and valued to foster constructive and positive change.
“My biggest takeaway from all of this is that I’ve learned how important collaboration really is,” Wright says.
“I have always been a very independent student. I’ve never liked to rely on other people. Group projects were the death of me, up until I got to college and learned I had to adapt,” she adds. “In Educators Rising, I have become such a collaborative person, and I’m proud I have grown to be somebody who used to be dependent on myself but who now knows I can depend on my peers.”