D181 staff members bring home the awards

Those who Excel recognizes a dozen employees, from administrators to support staff

District 181 will have a large contingent traveling to Illinois State University in May for the Those Who Excel banquet. Twelve staff members - or more than a quarter of all recipients in DuPage County - were recognized (see sidebar).

"We know we're filled with these outstanding educators, and to have a large number of them represented in this award obviously made us smile," said Hector Garcia, superintendent of Community Consolidated Elementary District 181. "We're very proud of their work."

Recognizing staff has been one of the district's goals, and Garcia praised Jeffrey Alstadt, communications director, for his efforts to spread the word about nominations. So did award winner Kathy Robinson, assistant superintendent of learning, who received an award of special recognition.

"Jeffrey is excellent in terms of communicating to staff if there is someone who has gone out of their way and really shines, take time to nominate them," she said.

Robinson was nominated by Gabrielle Pastiak, a teacher on special assignment.

"I was so excited," Robinson said of learning of her nomination. "I found her immediately and thanked her and gave her a big hug and told her it wasn't necessary, but definitely very much appreciated that she took the time out to recognize the work that I had done."

Robinson is excited to return to the Illinois State University campus in Normal, where she is an alumni.

"It's nice that I get to go back to where I started to accept the award," she said.

Robinson said she always knew she wanted to work with children and still tries to do so as a district administrator.

"I try to get into the classrooms as much as I possibly can," she said.

Seeing the words Pastiak wrote about her work with teachers is almost better than receiving the award, Robinson said.

"That means the most to me - not the award itself, but someone taking time out of their day to write down what it means to the district and to the kids and teachers in the district," she said.

Nine District 181 teachers were recognized, including Hinsdale Middle School sixth-grade science teacher Kelly Pelak. She received the top Those who Excel honor, the award of excellence, after being nominated by a colleague and supported in a letter from former student Celsey O'Hare.

"She wrote a phenomenal letter and had the opportunity to expand on her first-hand experience of being in my class and being directly impacted by my teaching," said Pelak, who has worked in District 181 since graduating from the University of Illinois. "That was a really incredible experience to read her thoughts."

O'Hare wrote a two-page single-spaced nomination letter, describing Pelak's efforts to not only make science class fun, but to challenge students.

"I can truly say that, without a doubt, I have never had a teacher as engaging, passionate, dedicated and fun-loving as Ms. Pelak," O'Hare wrote. "She goes above and beyond in every sense of the phrase, from creating interactive games for her students to making sure we got to participate in real hands-on labs almost every week of the year."

Pelak has worked at Clarendon Hills Middle School and Hinsdale Middle School for all but two of her 24 years in the district (which she spent at The Lane). She said she enjoys working with middle school kids.

"I love it," she said. "I love the challenge. I love the unpredictability of what a day will look like in a middle school classroom. Every day is unique."

Middle-schoolers are often misunderstood and get a bad rap, she said, adding that she thinks they are as excited about learning as kids at any other grade level. They just face some additional challenges.

"I really enjoy this group. I wouldn't change it for anything," Pelak added.

Growing up downstate with two aunts who were teachers and having wonderful teachers in school - including Mr. Nesbit in U.S. history, which whom she remains in touch - inspired her to go into education.

"I wasn't naturally drawn to U.S. history but I loved it because he was so passionate about it and he enjoyed what he was doing so much," she said. "It was contagious."

Pelak considers herself blessed to work in a beautiful building with talented colleagues and dedicated staff.

"The work environment is one of the things that I love the most, but it's really the kids that make this job so special and make it easy to get up every day to do. I love being with them. I love the connections you have an opportunity to build with them," she said.

The most important thing she has learned from her students is that the lessons she teaches might not be the most important thing to students.

"Often times years later a student will come back and talk about the impact you had on them and their life, and often times it had nothing to do with the content that you're teaching and more about how you made them feel," Pelak said.

With so many deserving of recognition, Pelak said she feels humbled.

"I also recognize that I wouldn't be where I am today without the colleagues that I currently have and the mentors that I had. I was blessed to have some legendary teachers - Jim Cox, Ed Doebert - that mentored me when I first started my career. I wouldn't be who I am without them," she said.

Garcia said the awards verify what many parents already know about the great staff members working in the district. "I don't think it's groundbreaking news that their teacher is outstanding," he said. "What I think is really neat for parents and students to know is there is another one around the bend and another one after that and another one after that."

Author Bio

Author photo

Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean