A class act: Orland Park woman wins teaching award
BY GINGER BRASHINGER Correspondent November 13, 2013 12:18PM
Kathy Sulkowski, of Orland Park, who teaches at Lincoln-Way Central High School, has been honored by Lewis University for her professional accomplishments. | Ginger Brashinger~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 15, 2013 6:11AM
Lincoln-Way Central reading teacher Kathy Sulkowski was nudged into her successful teaching career.
When Sulkowski was in her senior year at Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Sandburg psychology teacher Pat Sieloff asked her what she planned to study when she attended Lewis University after graduation.
Sulkowski confessed she hadn’t given it much thought.
Sieloff told her, “I think you’d be a great teacher.”
“It wasn’t something I had thought about before,” Sulkowski said.
Nevertheless, Sulkowski took to heart Sieloff’s belief in her, earning a bachelor’s degree in education in 2006 and her master’s degree in reading and literature in 2011 from Lewis University.
And Sulkowski, 29, already has validated Sieloff’s prediction twice.
Sulkowski was named Lincoln-Way Central High School Teacher of the Year earlier this year, and recently was chosen to receive Lewis University’s Educationis Lumen Award for her “accomplishments as a professional teacher.”
Sulkowski said that looking back on her conversation with Sieloff, a “very vivid memory,” she believes it was a turning point in her life.
“I think that that influences the kind of teacher I am — recognizing that even one word of encouragement can make a world of difference in (someone’s) day or even their life path, in my perspective,” Sulkowski said.
Sulkowski uses the same approach, encouraging her students every day in her classroom because she said she understands that some students struggle with reading or with life, something even teachers have experienced.
“When a kid walks into my room, no matter what they have going on in their life ... I just hope that I can make them smile, make them laugh and make that process of learning just a little bit easier, just a little bit smoother no matter what they have to go home to,” Sulkowski said.
Her own upbringing was in a “faith-driven home” on the South Side with her parents, Ted and Sue, and her siblings, Jessica, 31, and Joe, 28. When Sulkowski was 16, her family moved to Orland Park, where she still resides.
“I feel really lucky that I had such a supportive family. My parents were the mom and dad who said, ‘Try this or do this. It doesn’t matter if you fail ... as long as you put everything you have into it, that’s success,’ ” Sulkowski said.
She remembers struggling at times in school and getting encouragement from her mother, experiences she now uses to benefit her students.
“My mother would say, ‘There’s a reason you’re struggling. You’ll know what it is later,’ ” Sulkowski said. “That’s the faith piece. I know I’m meant to teach.”
It’s not just in the classroom that Sulkowski has had success. When her passion for playing volleyball was sidelined by a degenerative back condition after her freshman year at Lewis — where she was named the 2002 Women’s Volleyball Player of the Year — Sulkowski, at 19, became a volleyball coach at Marist High School.
“I found out I was so passionate about the sport I couldn’t stay away from it,” she said.
Sulkowski coached at Marist for the next three years and taught history there for one year before taking a position in 2007 as a reading teacher at Lincoln-Way Central.
Sulkowski became the junior-varsity girls volleyball coach for two years and has coached the varsity team for the last five years.
For Sulkowski, coaching is teaching on a deeper level. She said the increased amount of time she spends with her players allows her to develop closer relationships and an opportunity to mentor and lead.
“My girls will tell you that every time we learn a lesson, it’s not just about volleyball,” Sulkowski said. “It’s a bigger picture thing.”
Her goal is to help her players become “stronger women” and “to set goals and figure out a pathway to achieve them,” she said.
“It’s important to teach them that volleyball isn’t life, but it can help you become the person you want to be,” Sulkowski said. “It did that for me.”
Sulkowski has high praise for her own teachers and said she has been “influenced by all the teachers” who have educated her — “every single one of them.
“They showed me how to teach and how to do it the right way,” she said.
When Sulkowski receives her award in December at Lewis University’s student teacher recognition ceremony, she will have the opportunity to share her experiences and success with the future teachers.
“I already know it’s just taking the time to get to know all of your students ... that having students know that you’re interested in them really enhances the learning in your class,” Sulkowski said. “It’s OK to show your kids how much heart you have for what you do and the love you have for them and for their content area.”