What Drives These Educators?

Recognized for excellence: (L to R): Jeff Strouss, Amber Murphy, Tracey Sanderson and Scott Bastian

Last spring the Hinckley-Big Rock school district selected four individuals for recognition as leaders in education. This was the first time the district presented such recognition and perhaps it was due in part to wanting to showcase the quality of educators in the district. Each award recipient took time before the start of the fall semester to talk about their backgrounds, goals, and interests in education. A common response, as you will read, was their concern for students, efforts to keep everyone focused on learning, and length of time at HBR.

Jeff Strouss, Co-Principal of the middle school this year, has been in education for 33 years. He taught in Mendota for 10 years before landing what he calls his dream job at
HBR. “I wanted a smaller school district and a position where I could get to know all the students and their parents/guardians,” Strouss admits. He also wanted a job where he could impact more kids through the hiring of staff, student discipline, and what is being taught. He especially enjoys getting to know staff individually and helping them be more effective at their work.

Strouss strives to know each student and their family, their extra-curricular interests, and unique things about each student. Between class periods, Strouss is out in the hallways visiting with students, listening, and observing. He was instrumental in creating a career day for sixth-grade students nine years ago where up to 20 speakers talked about their careers, explained needed skills, and answered student questions.

“It helps students start to think about what they want to do with their life, the classes and skills they will need, and to set goals,” the principal says.

Strouss feels some of the challenges facing education today are keeping up with technology and responding to new state laws that micro-manage teaching. He advises anyone interested in a teaching career that they need to be a people-person, desire to help every child learn, and be flexible to change. He concludes “There is
tremendous satisfaction is seeing a student learn, mature, and achieve their goals.”

Amber Murphy calculates she has 450 minutes each day to contact students or teachers, support them, and impact the learning process. She has her degree in Elementary Education but chose to be a paraprofessional so she could help her daughter deal with cystic fibrosis.

“I needed the flexibility and believe every teaching position is important,” Murphy notes.

“When I was in high school, I finally realized I learned differently than other students,” she says. “I use that awareness now to find out what each student needs and how to help them learn.”

She brings different types of plants to her classroom to demonstrate to the students that each requires different care and to give them an opportunity to care for something.

“I use made-up songs, sign language, and speak softly to help calm a student, teach them that someone believes in them, and modify their behavior. If a student shares their schedule of extracurricular activities, Murphy has been known to show up at
games and hold up a sign that says I believe in you; always have, always will. She brainstorms with teachers, creates material, and never stops trying to learn from teachers and reading material.

Murphy stayed at home after college graduation to be with her three children. She started a mom’s college in Yorkville and ran a mom’s day-out in Big Rock. She is entering her tenth year at HBR. “I like to make things fun, find joy in life, and build relationships with students and teachers.” She says social-emotional learning is a critical part of education today.

Tracey Sanderson is another teacher who likes working with kids, helping them contribute to their community and become leaders. The high school agricultural education teacher and FFA advisor uses the broad career options in agriculture to help students find a purpose for education and apply that knowledge for a satisfying career.

“My classes appeal to students who learn from the book and those who learn by applying the material.”

Sanderson got interested in agriculture during college because of the subject matter and now uses that content to attract all types of students. “I like working with kids, helping them find their interests and preparing them for jobs,” Sanderson says. I welcome all types of students and utilize supervised agricultural experiences outside of the classroom for them to learn and solve problems.

Teaching agricultural education today requires lots of different types of laboratories, large teaching spaces, and supplies. Sanderson has been successful at applying for grants and involving alumni and community members to fund and build a greenhouse and separate agriculture building on school grounds for applied learning. We can bring in large farm equipment and trucks for demonstrations, have space to process the agricultural produce we grow, and invite business people to speak about careers.

“In my nine years of teaching at HBR (and 14 years altogether), I continue to learn from other teachers and the response from students,” she observes. “I am continually amazed at how students learn by doing and become contributing members of the community after graduation.”

Scott Bastian wasn’t planning to teach when he graduated from college in 1989. Jobs in his field of public relations were scarce so he decided to coach middle school sports. He was also substitute teaching at the Hinckley Elementary School nearly every day and was soon encouraged to go back to college for a degree in education with a middle school emphasis.

“I really like working with middle school students and finding ways to make learning fun so they learn more and can retain what they learn,” Bastian says. Over his 31 years in teaching, he has taught social studies, American history, civics, and Physical ed plus coached coed soccer and boys basketball.

This year, Bastian will be using a new American history textbook that doesn’t change the basic history of who founded the country (he laughs) but adds more recent material. “Students will be allowed to dig a little deeper into areas where they have an interest,” he notes.

Outside the classroom Bastian has been involved with drug prevention activities, advising student councils, and helping organize fundraisers for basketball and track teams, plus staff with health issues. Many of his former students like to occasionally get together with him for lunch which says a lot about his relations with students and concern for their development.

By Bob Pritchard

Bob serves as President of the Hinckley Historical Society and is a board member of the DeKalb County History Center. He lives on a farm in DeKalb County that has been in the family since 1849 and which he continues to operate with his son.