Spotlight: 10 Questions for Erin Reichert (SC '17)March 1, 2018
Social studies teacher Erin Reichert (SC ’17) reinforces the value of education with her students by tying it to jobs and future earnings, making learning fun, and packing the day with meaningful resources and experiences: “I hope they remember these ideas and lessons as they move along their paths and make choices about their future.” She won South Carolina’s 2017-18 Milken Educator Award at Bluffton High School on January 18, 2018.
1. What went through your mind when you heard your name called at your surprise notification?
Erin Reichert: Does this mean I have to walk up there now? Oh no … I have to go walk up there now. It took me a minute to process what was happening. Thankfully I had one of my best friends sitting next to me for support. I felt like I was floating through the crowd, looking at smiling young faces proud of their teacher. I took a deep breath and relaxed and made it all about what I wanted those faces to hear me say.
One of my former students was actually at the assembly [Sarah Kimball, field representative for U.S. Representative Mark Sanford]. She credits her involvement with government and politics to her experiences with my classes and programs. That was a cosmic, full-circle moment for me. I get chills thinking of it.
2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?
Erin: My students are so proud of me and continue to tell people about the Award. I think it has really motivated them and made the whole district proud. The Award was for all teachers and the profession as a whole, not just me. I love how it has increased morale and positivity around the building with students and staff alike.
3. How did you end up in education?
Erin: I knew I wanted to do something in social studies, but I wasn’t sure what. I love the subject and I really like to use historical contexts for understanding the world. I went into the social studies certification program at Eastern Illinois University, which has an incredible teacher education program. Many of the strategies and skills that I learned way back in the late 1990's, pre-internet, have stayed with me throughout my career. They are guiding forces in my teaching strategy. I can’t say I had always dreamed of teaching, but it definitely found me and I am grateful for that.
4. Who are your role models as an educator?
Erin: One of my first role models was my grandmother. She taught high school English in a small farm town in Illinois and taught both of my parents and most of my extended family. She was also a piano teacher and choir director. From her I learned enthusiasm, eternal optimism, and the importance of relationship-building.
Two of my K-12 teachers influenced me, too. From Mrs. Gloria Jameson, my third-grade teacher, I learned about hands-on, experiential learning. Her classroom was lively and engaging, and she made learning interesting and fun. In high school, Mr. Kelly Keogh is a legendary social studies teacher at Normal Community High School in Normal, Illinois. His class, International Relations, inspired me to create a classroom that utilized higher-level analysis, synthesis, entertainment and humor, and my passion for content.
Several colleagues served as incredible role models in my formative years as an educator in the south suburbs of Chicago. Mr. Wayne Mroz, Ms. Carol Czworniak, Mr. Ed Bara, and Mr. Michael Duffy taught me immeasurable and unforgettable lessons on excellence in teaching. Whether it be through parent relationships, organization and conveyance of content to learners, extending influence outside of classrooms through extracurricular activities and experiences, or lesson design, their modeling of excellence in teaching had an enormous influence on my approach. I can’t thank them enough for investing in a young teacher like me and showing me how to teach.
5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Erin: Wow, was I young and clueless! I was on a Humanities team with three other veteran teachers and worked with around 60 freshmen, who by my calculations are now 32 years old. We took them to Chinatown, the Chicago Architectural boat tour, art museums, concerts, and historical tours in the city. Looking back, I cannot believe how lucky I was to have landed that once-in-a-lifetime position. It was one of the most rewarding years of my life and I had the chance to learn from some amazingly talented and unique educators.
My second day of teaching was September 11th, 2001. I had first block planning, so I was sitting in the Humanities workroom with Iris Stanioch, a veteran teacher, when we heard the news. Someone came in and said the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. As a social studies teacher, I had a terrible feeling that it might have been a terrorist attack. I had two sections of Honors World History later that day. The social studies teachers had been told to talk to the students about the implications of the attack and to provide some information. This was before there was much technology in the classroom, so we had an old-fashioned discussion. I will always remember those moments with my impressionable and confused young students—a trial-by-fire, think-on-your-feet lesson for a new teacher. It showed me the importance of empathy, perspective, and the incredibly important role teachers have as role models for discussing sensitive topics and making students feel safe and respected.
6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?
Erin: Without question, they will remember the energy, the roleplay and simulations I use on a daily basis, the questioning, imagining, experiential learning methods, and how much I care about them and their success and futures. They will remember fun. They will remember the unique stories and extensions, the hypotheticals, the personalization of the figures in history, and the integration of the modern into the historical and vice versa. Students who leave my class know unequivocally that I bring my passion about their success and my content to the table each day, and this creates an engaging environment for them. My goal is for students to leave the class and say, “That was fun! That was cool!”
7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?
Erin: Right now it’s an emerging trend towards academic apathy. It’s a frightening trajectory, but I see students who lack an intrinsic interest in education. It’s clearly not all students, but it concerns me. When I set out to teach, I never anticipated having to convince students that becoming highly educated is important, vital to society, and beneficial.
To combat this, I show students the correlation between education and income, show learning as something fun and interesting, and provide as many meaningful resources and experiences as I possibly can each day. While this may not show immediate results, I hope they remember these ideas and lessons as they move along their paths and make choices about their future.
8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Erin: I have given that a good deal of thought. I would love to do a little bit of many things: set some big ideas into motion, have some opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, experience some things that will no doubt enhance my art and craft as an educator. The Award was unexpected, which requires some unexpected uses. We’ll see what happens.
9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?
Erin: Teacher recruitment and retention is a real concern for me. There are many misconceptions about the career of teaching, many of which stem from media portrayals, growing disrespect, and open criticism. This is unfortunate, to say the least, since teacher quality is one of the biggest keys to student achievement. Teaching is rewarding, teaching is fun, teaching is challenging, teaching is important. Students questioning what their future holds can look to teaching as a wonderfully exciting, variety-filled, and invaluable path. Our society depends on it.
10. What’s your definition of success?
Erin: Making an impact on people and society, whether it’s in a small, nuanced way or with a giant splash. As a teacher, especially a social studies teacher, I have experienced this impact in a variety of ways. I feel successful when students integrate something I have taught them, connect an idea to a current event, take the initiative to participate in a new opportunity, have the confidence to speak their own truths, or display leadership through helping others. I define my success as a teacher through my students and how I can positively impact them. Success is helping other people become their best selves.
Don’t miss any new articles and updates from Milken Educator Awards: