Susan Paszkowski loves the month of August.
The Cass Junior High School teacher said one of the things she loves about teaching is that every year is a fresh start, and everyone is motivated, eager and happy to begin the new school year in August. “Sometimes I feel bad for my husband, that he doesn’t get that in his job,” Paszkowski said.
With the exception of her first year of teaching when Paszkowski worked at a school in Berwyn, she has spent the remainder of her time with School District 63. She’s been with Cass for 14 years.
Although she started her education at University of Illinois at Chicago as a biology major because she loved science, she quickly changed her major to elementary education with a focus on science and math.
“One of my brothers used to take me to his lab at DePaul and show me around, as well as do experiments with me,” she said.
As a child, Paszkowski loved to play teacher, something she and her fellow teachers talk about all the time.
“I’ve just always been around children,” she said. “And I enjoy explaining things to kids and making that connection.”
In her first year of student teaching, Paszkowski was assigned to a third grade classroom. It didn’t take her long to realize that wasn’t the age group for her. Her first job as a teacher, she was assigned to sixth grade and fell in love with the age group.
“It’s a time when they’re becoming more independent and trying new things and I like to guide them,” Paszkowski said. “… If you can find a way to relate to them and spark their interest, it’s just great to connect with them.”
In the upcoming school year, in addition to teaching her sixth graders, Paszkowski will also teach eighth grade science, a challenge she has been preparing for all summer.
“This is by far going to be one of my biggest challenges,” she said. “… I’m excited, mostly because it’s a challenge for me and that’s when I do my best.”
For Paszkowski, keeping her kids engaged is a top priority. All of her classes are lab based, so every day students prep the lab, do the lab, analyze the data and then have a discussion to relate the lab to real life.
Paszkowski often uses video clips or music in her lessons, like playing “The Electric Slide” when students study electricity. Ultimately, she focuses on showing the students how science relates to their real life experiences.
“You can’t hide from it,” she said. “The science is everywhere.”
When students make that connection, Paszkowski said you can see it on their faces. “Sometimes I want to jump up and down because (as a teacher), you always wonder if it is clicking in their brains,” she said.
In addition to teaching science, Paszkowski also started a recycling program at her school, earning her a nomination from those in her building for the Illinois State Board of Education’s 2013-14 Those Who Excel awards. She attended an awards ceremony in October and accepted her Those Who Excel award for Merit.
“I was really humbled by the whole thing,” she said.
The recycling program Paszkowski started is part of the Dream Machine Recycle Rally, a national competition sponsored by Pepsico. The program has collected 300,000 items in the 2.5 years the school has been running it. Last year the school placed seventh nationally for the amount of items it recycled.
Paszkowski decided to start the program when she heard people talking about how things were not being recycled in the lunchroom. She signed up for lunchroom duty, saw it first hand and decided the students and school could do something about recycling.
In addition to recycling items in the lunchroom, students are allowed and encouraged to bring their recyclables from home to recycle at school. Although the Dream Machine Recycle Rally focuses on plastic bottles and aluminum cans, the school recycles everything.
“The point is to get (students) in the habit of recycling and teach kids to be the advocates of recycling in their home,” Paszkowski said.
Paszkowski’s exploratory science class is responsible for collecting the items for the competition, weighing them and reporting the results for the competition. Schools are eligible to win money for green initiatives at their school and other prizes.