Fluent in Spanish, Ms. Katie Plum brings expert foreign language skills as well as impressive classroom experience to her new position as one of Elmwood Park High School's two deans of students. (Her fellow dean is Mr. Brandon Pedersen.)
Ms. Plum served as Transitional Program of Instruction/Transitional Bilingual Education (TPI/TBE) teacher at Hester Junior High School in Franklin Park from 2010 to 2018. In that job she worked with students in grades 6 to 8 whose home language was Spanish.
Besides her bachelor's degree in secondary education from DePaul University, Ms. Plum has two master's degrees: an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and an M.A. in educational administration from Dominican University in River Forest.
To learn more about Ms. Plum, including her experience working with students for whom English was not their first language, District 401 web/media specialist Dave Porreca interviewed her via email.
The Q&A was conducted before Ms. Plum officially began her new job. An edited version of their exchange appears below.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Issaquah, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. But both of my parents are from the Chicago area, so I visited here often.
Q: What high school did you attend?
A: I attended Eastside Catholic High School in Bellevue, Wash.
Q: As an undergraduate at DePaul, you majored in secondary education. What motivated you to become an educator?
A: Since I was a child, I have always enjoyed school and learning. Throughout my education, I became aware of how dedicated and passionate teachers can make a real difference in the lives of their students, and I began to consider teaching as a future career.
Q: A year after getting your bachelor’s degree, you received your International Teaching English as a Foreign Language Certificate in Seville, Spain. Then two years later you earned a master’s from Northeastern Illinois University in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). What background did you have in Spanish language and culture prior to going to college?
A: I chose to take Spanish in 7th grade as one of my electives. I continued studying Spanish through college. During high school I went on a two-week school trip to Spain and fell in love with Seville in particular. So when I knew I was going to finish student teaching in December, I decided that it would be the perfect time to travel back to Spain to brush up on my Spanish, as well as to practice teaching a little more.
After teaching Spanish for one year, I enrolled in my TESL program at NEIU because I realized how passionate I was about languages and about helping students who needed extra help accessing education through learning English.
Q: Are you fluent in other foreign languages besides Spanish?
A: No, but I studied American Sign Language for three years and German for one year, and I’ve learned basic pleasantries in a few other languages.
Q: From 2010 onward, you’ve mainly worked in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL). What led you to focus on that?
A: I have always been interested in different cultures and languages. Working in the field of ESL seemed like a great way to connect with both of those interests!
Q: At Hester Junior High School, you’ve been the TPI/TBE (Transitional Program of Instruction/Transitional Bilingual Education) teacher since 2010. For the benefit of lay people, would you describe what TPI/TBE involves? Is it different from traditional ESL? If so, in what way?
A: If I had to narrow it down to the main difference, ESL classes are typically taught as English-only classes and TPI/TBE classes have bilingual components. When students have a strong grasp of instruction in their native language, they typically have an easier time transitioning that knowledge to their new language (English). There are many different program models for TPI/TBE, but at Hester we were lucky enough to individualize education for all of the Limited English Proficient (LEP) students.
Q: Most of your teaching experience seems to have come at the middle school/junior high level (grades 6 to 8). What attracted you to working with that age group, and what are the challenges and rewards of working with middle school/junior high students?
A: There is a tremendous amount of social and academic growth at the middle school level. It was challenging for me to teach 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade classes in one day because each age group demands a different style of instruction and level of support. However, since my students often looped (were in my class all three years) with me, it felt very rewarding to see huge growth in their academic and language proficiency from the beginning of 6th grade to 8th grade graduation.
Q: Since 2016, you’ve also taught ESL at Leyden High School during the summer. Has that been your primary experience working with high school students? What have you learned from your time at Leyden?
A: In my experience, the high school students I have taught have different educational goals and life-ready outcomes than those in middle school. For example, my students ask for help obtaining competitive employment, post-secondary education and training, and independent living skills.
Q: Looking back on your time in the classroom, what are some of your fondest memories? What are some of the things you’re proudest of as a teacher?
A: I continue to be proud of all of the newcomers I taught. [Note: The U.S. Department of Education defines “newcomers” as “any foreign-born students and their families who have recently arrived in the United States.”] They looped in my class, so from year to year I was able to watch them grow from not understanding any English at all to becoming fully proficient — and sometimes even honors students — once they got to high school. I am also proud about my development in providing services for individuals with special needs. I was part of the special education team and enjoyed my time co-teaching the dual enrolled (ELL/LEP) students. While working with my co-teacher I was able to apply more social/emotional learning needs into my everyday teaching.
Q: When you were teaching, you also coached several sports. What can you tell us about that? Were you an athlete in school yourself?
A: I was an athlete growing up. I played softball, soccer, swam and snowboarded. I coached boys soccer for eight years, and every year we went to the championship — which is a point of pride for me. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to work with my co-teacher to start the Special Olympics team for track and soccer.
Q: Did you learn anything from coaching that helped you as a teacher? If so, what?
A: My coaching philosophy was always to develop the whole athlete. Through my years of coaching, in addition to athletic skills, I promoted social responsibility and academics.
Q: What led you to make the transition to administration? Why leave the classroom?
A: As a classroom teacher, my support was limited to the students that I taught in my class. As an administrator, I will be able to connect with and support many more students throughout the school.
Q: How do you think your experience at the middle school/junior high level will translate to high school? In other words, in what ways has your experience at Hester prepared you for Elmwood Park High School?
A: Each year I taught, I took on more supervisory roles at the middle school. These administrative experiences will be especially valuable as I make this transition to EPHS.
Q: What interested you in the EPHS dean position?
A: I believe that I will be able to make strong connections with EPHS students as I work with them from their 8th-grade transition to EPHS through their high school career and through their transition to post-secondary outcomes.
Q: How familiar were you with District 401 before you applied for the position? As a teacher and coach at Hester, you must have had a fair amount of interaction with District 401, especially with Elm Middle School. What attracted you to the District?
A: The fact that District 401 is a unit district with a very tight-knit community was very attractive to me when I was considering applying. I believe that this type of environment is positive for all members of the school community, especially students.
Q: What do you think your strengths will be as an administrator?
A: I think my diverse teaching and supervisory experiences give me a breadth of strengths as an administrator.
Q: Do you have a particular leadership philosophy that will guide you as a dean of students? If so, what is it, and how did you develop it?
A: Developed over my 10 years of experience in education, I believe my position as dean is to make a comprehensive high school education achievable to students with attendance, behavioral and/or disciplinary problems.
Q: What will your main responsibilities be as an EPHS dean?
A: My main responsibilities will be to promote equity in the EPHS community. I will communicate with administrators, teachers, parents and students to achieve this goal.
Q: Once you’re on the job at EPHS, what will your priorities be as you get ready for the 2018-19 school year?
A: My first priority will be to get to know as much about the EPHS community as I can. I am excited about the upcoming year and working with the EPHS team!
Q: Who have been some of your major professional influences or mentors, and what lessons have you learned from them?
A: I have learned from, and have admired, administrators who make decisions based on what’s best for kids.
Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in going into the field of education?
A: Being a part of student development is an incredibly rewarding experience!
Q: What are some of your interests outside of work?
A: Outside of work I enjoy spending time with my family, participating in extracurricular sports, snowboarding, traveling and racing motorcycles.
Q: Would you like to tell us anything about your family?
A: My husband and I live in Chicago with our son and puppy.