Traci Krueger Named 2021 ISBE Regional Teacher of the Year

Traci Krueger teaches remotely at John Mills Elementary School

Ms. Traci Krueger teaches remotely from John Mills Elementary School. She has been selected as a 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year for Cook County by the Illinois State Board of Education. She is now one of 10 finalists for ISBE's overall Illinois Teacher of the Year award. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

Ms. Traci Krueger, who teaches 3rd-grade English language arts and social studies at John Mills Elementary School, has been named a 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year for Cook County.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) announced the award Sept. 29 as part of its annual Teacher of the Year recognition program.

Ms. Krueger shares the Cook County honor with two co-winners, Precious Allen of Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago and Justin Johnson of Niles West High School in Skokie.

A total of 10 educators throughout the state were chosen as Regional Teachers of the Year. They are now finalists for the overall award, which will be announced Oct. 21 at ISBE's monthly board meeting.

Although news of the award wasn't made public until the 29th, Ms. Krueger was told of the honor earlier this month.

"I find myself thinking about the road to get to this award more than the achievement in itself," she said. "I have been doing a lot of reflecting and I feel like this award is a testament to the amazing work this District prides itself on."

VIDEO: Watch Traci Krueger discuss winning the 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year award and what it means to her as an Elmwood Park native. (D401 video produced by Dave Porreca)

Elmwood Park Proud

For Ms. Krueger, the award represents the culmination of more than two decades as both a student and an educator in District 401.

The daughter of Eric Dean and Judy Schmidt Dean, Traci grew up in Elmwood Park with her two siblings, Eric and Lisa. The Dean siblings went through the District 401 school system, and both Traci and Lisa — now Lisa Marzillo, a kindergarten teacher at Elmwood Elementary School — work in the District.

Traci graduated from John Mills in 2000, from Elm Middle School in 2002 and from Elmwood Park High School in 2006.

This background has given Traci a special bond with her students.

"I always start the year off by reading the book ​'The First Day Jitters​' — it’s about a teacher who is nervous about the first day of school," Traci said. "After the book I tell the students it's OK to be nervous and that I know what it’s like to be in their shoes because I am actually teaching in the same classroom as I attended in 3rd grade as a student.

"As soon as I tell them that it's always like a weight is lifted off their shoulders. They know it’s going to be OK to feel any emotion they might have and that I understand what they are going through. It's really a special bond to be able to talk with my students about my experiences growing up in Elmwood Park."

Traci photo collage

ABOVE: Traci's EPHS student ID, a photo from her elementary school days and a photo of her suited up for the Tiger varsity. Photos courtesy of Traci Krueger (click image for larger view) 

An award-winning athlete and scholar, Traci played three sports at EPHS: volleyball, basketball and softball. Her honors included the Cynthia Schulze Sports Award and the Gary Stearns Award.

Traci played softball in college, first at Western Illinois University and then at Winona State University in Minnesota, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in elementary education and early childhood education.

She also earned master's degrees from National Louis University and Judson University, with specialized endorsements in special education and English as a second language.

Determined to return to Elmwood Park as an educator, she began her career at John Mills in 2011 as a paraprofessional instructional aide. The following year a teaching position opened up, and she has taught 3rd grade at John Mils ever since.

"Traci is a product of what this community provides," said Dr. Leah Gauthier, Superintendent of Schools. "She grew up here, she went through the school system here, she came back here and she’s now an educator in our community. All along the way, Traci has picked up on things to make her into the educator that she is today, and that’s a true testament of the community."

Reflecting on the award, Traci said: "This award will be shared with every teacher who I had growing up in Elmwood Park and every person I work with. This award is recognition for the early mornings, late nights and weekends all my teachers and colleagues put in. I am so excited to share this happiness with every person who has been a part of my journey as an educator."

Traci teaches remotely

ABOVE: Ms. Krueger teaches a class on internet safety. On this particular day, she was using Brittany Swift's kindergarten classroom because her own classroom was being painted. Ms. Krueger normally teaches in Room 214 — the same room she had when she was a 3rd-grade student herself! D401 photo by Dave Porreca (click image for larger view)

"Safe, Trusted, Respected"

To be a candidate in the Teacher of the Year competition, Traci had to be nominated by someone with firsthand knowledge of the qualities she possessed that made her worthy of statewide recognition. John Mills Principal Mr. Frank Kuzniewski nominated her.

"When I think of someone who is a teacher of the year, that is someone who always goes over and beyond for their students and for their colleagues, and that is Traci Krueger," said Mr. Kuzniewski.

In addition, three letters of recommendation had to be submitted on her behalf, and Traci herself had to submit her resume, a professional biography and essays addressing three topics: her educational philosophy, an issue in education of importance to her, and a description of a project in which she demonstrated educational leadership.

According to ISBE, a candidate for Teacher of the Year must demonstrate the following attributes:

  • A willingness to advocate for students and teachers;
  • Active collaboration within the professional learning community and with parents and families;
  • Exceptional dedication, knowledge and skill in any state-approved or accredited school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12;
  • Inspiration to students of all backgrounds and abilities to learn;
  • A high level of respect and admiration of students, parents and colleagues; and
  • Leadership and innovation in and outside of the classroom that embody lifelong learning.

"I think all inspiring teachers and effective teachers find their own way," Traci said. "I don’t think there’s one prescribed formula. I can tell you what's worked for me, and the number one thing is building relationships with our students.

"Letting them know that we can be trusted, respected, and that this is a place where mistakes are allowed — I think that's been the most instrumental thing is students coming to school feeling comfortable with where they're at, feeling safe to make mistakes and take chances. I really find that once I get to a point in our classroom where students feel safe, trusted, respected that that makes all the difference."

Traci teaches remotely

ABOVE: Building positive relationships with students is fundamental to Ms. Krueger's approach to teaching. D401 photo by Dave Porreca (click image for larger view)

Q&A with Ms. Traci Krueger

To learn more about Traci, her approach to education and the influence that growing up in Elmwood Park had on her, District 401 web/media specialist Dave Porreca conducted the following interview with her via email. Congratulations, Traci!

When did you find out that you won Regional Teacher of the Year, and what was your reaction?

I was invited by my principal to attend what I thought would be a regional meeting to be a representative for our regional office. I thought we would be discussing topics pertaining to e-learning. To my surprise, when I got on the call they announced that I was receiving the award for Cook County. I was so honored to have my administration and a fellow co-teacher to celebrate the great news. It was humbling to listen to each person as they stated why they believed I earned this award. I remember feeling so grateful to work in a district that has supported and encouraged me in so many different ways.

You had already known that you were nominated for the award. Who first came to you with the idea of nominating you, and what was your reaction?

I remember it was in mid-June when my principal, Frank Kuzniewski, contacted me and told me that he would be nominating me for this award. He told me the process was lengthy, but he really wanted me to consider going through it because he felt even the nomination process would be rewarding. I have truly valued Frank’s leadership, so I was honored to be nominated, but I also completely trusted his point of view and decided to complete my application. 

Traci teaches remotely

ABOVE: It's not easy to engage students when teaching remotely, but Ms. Krueger captures their attention as she leads a discussion. D401 photo by Dave Porreca (click for larger view)

The nominee is involved in the application process. You had to submit a professional biography, and you had to write essays (educational narratives) addressing three topics: your philosophy of education, a major issue in education important to you, and an example of a project in which you served as a teacher leader. How much effort and time did all of this involve for you, and how valuable was it to have to address and think through these topics? I ask that because previous winners have said that the process of completing the nomination materials was itself a useful reflective experience for them. 

I would honestly recommend going through this process to every teacher who is nominated. I remember at first I was intimidated by the number of essays and specifically the word count. However, by the time I was done getting my ideas on paper I found myself having to cut huge sections just so I could fit within the essay parameters. The essays themselves took the better part of two weeks. I would write some things then come back to them each day, and I really took my time trying to relay my ideas in these essays.

Throughout writing my essays it was such a wonderful experience to be able to reflect on my teaching practices and beliefs. It was interesting to see that a lot of my ideas were the same as my first few years, and it was equally exciting to see that I have grown in many ways. 

The best part of this nomination was when I was gathering my letter of recommendations. To read what my co-workers and parents think about me as a person and educator was kind of an emotional experience. You try your best each day, and as a teacher you give a lot of yourself and you forget how much appreciation and respect really lifts you up. 

Just so we have a sense of the timeline, when were you first approached about being nominated, and when did you finish your part of the nomination process?

I was first approached in the middle of June. The essays were due by the end of June, and then the wait began. I didn’t really hear anything about it for the next two months, but I did think about it often. Just the thought of all of your life's work and everything you believe is about to be evaluated is intimidating, but it was worth every second of the wait. 

What does winning an award like this mean to you? More broadly for the teaching profession, what is the value of awards like this in your view?

I find myself thinking about the road to get to this award more than the achievement in itself. I have been doing a lot of reflecting, and I feel like this award is a testament to the amazing work this District prides itself on. This award will be shared with every teacher who I had growing up in Elmwood Park and every person I work with. This award is recognition for the early mornings, late nights and weekends that all my teachers and colleagues put in. I am so excited to share this happiness with every person who has been a part of my journey as an educator. 

Traci and her family

ABOVE: Parents Eric and Judy Dean enjoy some quality time with their children: Eric, Lisa and Traci. Lisa — now Lisa Marzillo — also works in District 401, as a kindergarten teacher at Elmwood Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Traci Krueger (click image for larger view)

What motivated you to become a teacher, and when did you first realize that’s what you wanted to do?

I grew up in a large family with a lot of younger cousins, so we were always taking care of and looking after each other. From there I remember enjoying babysitting, and then that turned into coaching and so on. Looking back I had a lot of experiences that were rewarding in the sense I could see the difference that educators played in my life, so it was definitely a factor when I was deciding to go into education.

You grew up in Elmwood Park and went to school in District 401. Tell us about that — which schools did you go to, who were some of your favorite teachers, what are some of your favorite memories as a student?

My mom was born and raised in Elmwood Park, so she has always been very invested in the community and she knew this was the exact place she wanted to raise her family. I started off at John Mills, and I had many memorable teachers there. It started with Mrs. Kerwin, and I remember how much she connected with her students and their families. She would come over for lunch on the weekend, and I even attended her wedding and we have a picture together. That was definitely something I try to emulate in my current classroom.  

Next I had Ms. Katsantones, and she was such an inspiring teacher — always upbeat and making learning hands-on and enjoyable. I have a picture we took for Christmas while I was in her kindergarten class, and we actually just had the opportunity to recreate it last year while we were attending a conference together. She has always been a fierce advocate for education and someone I look up to.

Traci and Ms. Katsantones

ABOVE: Traci with her kindergarten teacher, Ms. Sandra Katsantones, who now teaches kindergarten at Elmwood Elementary with Traci's sister, Lisa Marzillo. Photo courtesy of Traci Krueger (click image for larger view)

After that I had Mrs. Lopata for 1st grade. I remember feeling like she was a second mom to me. When I was in high school I created a business internship class where I would shadow her in the mornings before I went to school. I just remember wanting to learn as much from her as possible so I could create that same feeling of community in my class.

I also had Mrs. Johnson in 5th grade and Mrs. Demas in 6th grade. I remember they both had a lot of memorable long terms projects that stuck with me. Mrs. Demas specifically let us turn the whole room into an aquarium, and the next month we turned it into Greek and Roman history museum. 

In junior high and high school is really where I was encouraged to pursue extracurriculars. I had so many teachers/coaches who developed my current leadership skills. Ms. Dutton and Mrs. Franklin encouraged me to take on leadership roles for gym class and athletics. Their ability to connect with their students really made me want to go the extra mile for them, and it benefited me in many different ways. 

As you can see I had many teachers who impacted and helped shape my life and I could honestly go on for days with other teachers and their specific roles in my life. I feel grateful that they were my role models not only growing up but also still to this day now as my colleagues. 

Traci with her kindergarten photo

ABOVE: Ms. Krueger displays the earlier photo. She credits Ms. Katsantones for making learning enjoyable. D401 photo by Dave Porreca (click image for larger view)

How has the Elmwood Park community shaped who are as both a person and a teacher?

The community is something that is very important to me. I don’t want to just be someone who is a teacher from 7:45 to 3:15. I want to be someone who is accessible and part of the community. I like to attend my students' weekend games and also take walks with my dog and see students on the weekends. This community is such a special place, and the families of my students really care about education. My sister and I both made the choice to come back here because we wanted to give back to a community that has given us so much. 

Do you ever talk with your students about growing up in Elmwood Park? If so, how do they react when they find out that you and they share that connection?

I always start the year off by reading the book ​"The First Day Jitters​." It’s about a teacher who is nervous about the first day of school. After the book I tell the students it's OK to be nervous and that I know what it’s like to be in their shoes because I am actually teaching in the same classroom as I attended in 3rd grade as a student. As soon as I tell them that it's always like a weight is lifted off their shoulders. They know it’s going to be OK to feel any emotion they might have and that I understand what they are going through. It’s really a special bond to be able to talk with my students about my experiences growing up in Elmwood Park. 

What was the journey that brought you back to Elmwood Park? Did you always aspire to return, or was it happenstance, serendipity, etc.?

I actually went away to Minnesota for college to play softball. I knew that when it was time to teach that I wanted to start making my way back home, so I enrolled in the study abroad program. Most of the students go to another country but I came back to Illinois to start immersing myself in the standards and practices of Illinois. When I initially graduated there weren’t any teaching openings in Elmwood Park. I decided it was important to me to wait it out and not go to any other surrounding districts, so I took a para position in a special education classroom. I would definitely say it was determination and perseverance that got me to be a teacher in Elmwood Park, and I wouldn’t want to be a teacher anywhere else. 

Traci as scholar athlete

ABOVE: Traci was an award-winning three-sport athlete as well as an outstanding scholar during her years at EPHS, as shown in this Pioneer Press clipping about Scholar-Athlete of the Year nominees. Newspaper article courtesy of Traci Krueger (click image for larger view) 

Describe for us a typical day in the classroom for you and your students, pre-COVID.

The day usually starts before the bell rings. Students know they can come in early to read while I get ready for the day. They grab a book and cozy up somewhere to read. Then the bell rings and I always greet my students at the door. I say hello to each student by name, and I try to notice something special to say to each student. 

Then I am a big believer in routines and procedure, so all the students eventually know the morning routine and help each other get their materials put away. We always start the day with reading a book together. It is one of my favorite times of the day. Then students can be seen working independently or with me in small groups. 

I am not a fan of talking to the kids for long periods of time, so there are lots of short bursts of teaching, then time for students to dive in and try things out for themselves. We always end the day with reflecting on what we learned and what was difficult for them. I always like to keep the structure and expectations the same so students have to focus on that part, and they can spend their time working on the actual content and standards we are learning. 

What’s a typical day in Remote Learning 2.0 for you and your students?

We start our day together live on the computer. I let one student do "Show and Tell" while we wait for the class to get on. Then we follow that up by doing a social-emotional learning lesson using an app called Pear Deck. This time allows us to start the day by building community in an interactive way. 

After that we start our reading block. Of course I spend the first part doing my favorite thing and reading aloud to them. We do a lot of TPR (Total Physical Response) activities to learn new concepts. I model the skills and then they are talking about it, making motions and listening to others until we get solid in the topics. 

Then I send students off to do some independent work while I read one on one with students or pull small groups. I repeat this two more times with two other classes that I see. We have been ending the week on Friday’s with a dance party per the students' request. I see lots of smiling faces at the end of the day on Friday, so it’s always rewarding to see your students happy. 

Traci teaches remotely

ABOVE: Third grade is when students start to develop strong reading habits, and Ms. Krueger is there to help guide them. D401 photo by Dave Porreca (click image for larger view)

What are the rewards of teaching generally and teaching 3rd grade in particular? In other words, what is it that keeps you excited about teaching?

I really love teaching 3rd grade because the students come to you with a great foundation of skills that we can build on. It’s definitely the year when their reading takes off, and it’s exciting to be a part of helping students find their favorite genre or author and seeing them take off. I also see them starting to grow in maturity, and they really embrace learning about empathy and kindness, so it makes me excited to hope and dream about the future world these kids will be running some day. 

What makes a teacher who inspires or engages or has an impact?

I definitely think teachers who take the time to make connections with their students and families are the ones who make the biggest impact. I have been fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of it, and now I aspire to be on the other side and give that to my students. I also think the teacher that takes the time to get to know students as an individual makes a difference. Seeing a child and celebrating their strengths will go a long way when it comes to trying to inspire them to grow in other areas. 

Who are some of the people who have influenced you the most during your career, whether it was during your own student days, your days just starting out as a teacher or currently?

There honestly have been too many to name but it definitely started with my parents showing me that education was important. My Mom was on the PTA and the School Board growing up and my Dad could be seen working on the athletic field on the weekends. That definitely started off influencing me and understanding that education doesn’t just happen with the hours of the school day. 

From there I had countless teachers who really took time to see me as an individual and encourage me. Now, I would say I am influenced by my brilliant colleagues. I hear so many ideas that they come up with and I really try to take little pieces back to my classroom. 

And last but certainly not least is my sister. We didn’t have a mentor program when we started, and she spent countless hours helping me figure out what I wanted my classes to look like. Still to this day we talk to each other about what we want for our students and the District, and I really look up to her for all that she does for her students.

Traci teaches remotely

ABOVE: As one of 10 Regional Teachers of the Year throughout the state, Ms. Krueger is now a finalist for ISBE's 2021 overall Teacher of the Year honor, which will be announced Oct. 21 at ISBE's monthly board meeting. D401 photo by Dave Porreca (click image for larger view)

What advice would you give to students who are thinking about becoming teachers?

Anyone looking to go into education I would say take part in as many different experiences as possible. Go to professional development, listen to podcasts and really just immerse yourself in the field of education. Saying yes to different experiences has really got me to the point I am at now in my career.  

Just for Fun

  • Favorite hobbies or leisure activities:
    Outdoor activities such as hiking and kayaking
  • Favorite book when you were in 3rd grade:
    I read the Harry Potter series with my Dad
  • Favorite book now:
    Children’s book is "The Wild Robot"
  • Favorite movie when you were in 3rd grade:
    I liked all the Disney movies
  • Favorite movie now:
  • Favorite TV show when you were in 3rd grade:
    I remember watching "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" a lot with my family
  • Favorite TV show now:
    Anything on the Cooking Channel
  • Favorite song or performer when you were in 3rd grade:
  • Favorite song or performer now:
  • Favorite places you’ve visited:
    My parents in D.C., Punta Cana
  • Fun fact about yourself that many people might not know:
    I was a national dance champion when I was in junior high!

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