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Ottawa teacher Kathleen Vandervort shares that she received “an education on purpose from a young age.” While growing up in Park Ridge, a suburb of Chicago within miles of O’Hare International Airport, she watched her father run the Daley Center. After thirty years of teaching elementary students in Ottawa, Kathleen smiles as she reflects on her childhood and how it influenced her.

An Education on Purpose

“I got an education on purpose. I either babysat or I worked daycare or I did the YMCA summer program. I was not going to work at a clothing store. I was not going to work at a bank. There’s only one thing I was going to do,” shares Kathleen. “This was back in the day, before social media; I remember my mother putting an advertisement in the local paper asking if anyone needed a babysitter. It’s what we had to do back then.”


Kathleen says she recently transitioned to teaching second grade after twenty-seven years of teaching third grade. She also taught sixth grade in her first year out of college. “My gosh, thirty years. Over half of my life has been here in Ottawa.” Despite growing up elsewhere, Kathleen admits she’s long self-identified as an Ottawan.


After high school, Kathleen briefly attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. While she loved the town and the university, she eventually transferred to Illinois State University, which had a much stronger elementary education program. Once she graduated, she quickly realized she couldn’t return home. She shared that substitute teacher lists ran two to three hundred names deep.


A college friend who grew up in Ottawa helped Kathleen get a series of long-term substitute jobs and eventually she was hired by the District, allowing Lincoln Elementary to transition from two classes of thirty to three classes of twenty. “I got lucky,” concludes Kathleen. “I substitute taught here, and it got me noticed. I got really lucky.”


Now, after 27 years in third grade, Kathleen is starting her third year of teaching second grade. She cherishes chance encounters with former students, acknowledging that if she’d ended up teaching in the suburbs, such encounters likely would be few and far between. From bumping into former students at stores and restaurants to posing for pictures with a mother and daughter, both of whom she’s taught, she is thankful to have spent three decades teaching the youth of Ottawa. She feels pride for the community that welcomed her in as their own.


Kathleen looks at the teachers and administrators she works with as a second family, spending time together socially over the summer and supporting one another during the school year. She has the most tenure in the building but admits another teacher rivals her in overall experience but taught outside of Ottawa for several years. Laughing, she says the two of them are the OG’s of the teaching staff.


Ultimately, Kathleen believes that to be a successful educator; one must connect with their students, forming one-on-one relationships strong enough for the students to care, whether receiving praise or tough feedback. Kathleen admits that while she has goals for the impact she wants to make on her students, it’s only after she’s built a foundational relationship that her goals become possible.


First and foremost, Kathleen says she wants to ensure her students have self-worth. “I hope our students leave school each day, saying their teachers made them feel good,” says Kathleen, adding that “there’s too much ‘not good enough’ sentiment in the world.” Ultimately, she wants to help her students know they are worthy, self-sufficient, and creative problem solvers. By helping Ottawa’s youth believe in themselves enough to solve issues as they arise independently, she sees herself giving back to the place that welcomed her and gave her a home away from home.

I hope our students leave school each day, saying their teachers made them feel good.
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