SYCAMORE – When Cynthia Sulak was growing up in Chicago, she did not have her sights set on a teaching career.
“I originally wanted to go into confectionery arts,” said Sulak, who now lives in Sycamore. “My grandfather was a baker so I always kind of wanted to go there, but I think in the back of my mind I always knew that teaching was what I’d end up doing.”
Sulak has taught history at St. Charles North High School for seven years. She was selected as WGN television’s teacher of the month for March, but she is quick to deflect praise back to the students who nominated her.
“I’m very proud of my kids. I work with some of the greatest students. I couldn’t ask for better kids to work with,” Sulak said. “They really do make your job easier. They make it easier to get up in the morning and go to work.”
Sulak met with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to discuss her teaching career, methods and philosophies.
MidWeek: What do you teach?
Cynthia Sulak: I teach sophomore European history, junior honors U.S. history and I teach a class for freshmen called Global Issues.
MW: How do you make the subjects relatable to your students to keep their interest?
CS: I try to make it as relatable to them as possible. History is, in its name, a story. It’s not just names and places and events; it’s the human story that weaves those things together. I don’t ask my kids to remember dates in history, but what it comes down to is I want to make that human story as relatable to their lives as possible. There’s a reason we all like history - it’s usually that we want to find out more about the effect of different things on people at that time. If they were living at that time, what would they be experiencing? What would their lives be like?
MW: Do you encourage students to learn about their own family histories?
CS: Very much so. I’m extremely interested in genealogy. It’s a hobby of mine. I would love to become a professional genealogist.
MW: Do you know who nominated you, and why?
CS: I had two students nominate me, a current student, a junior, named Kylie Reed and another girl who graduated last year, Megan Thall. I had them both in class but they were also both my student council kids. I do student council outside of the classroom. My nomination was not only for my classroom, but everything I do outside of it.
MW: What other involvement do you have in extracurricular activities?
CS: I am the class of 2014 adviser, so I will follow them until they graduate next year. Then all four of the class advisers are student council advisers, and I’m also executive director for our district’s student council organization, which oversees the north central district of the Illinois Association of Student Councils.
MW: How did you find out you had been nominated?
CS: The girls actually told me in January that they had nominated me. Just in case I didn’t end up winning, they wanted me to know that they had done that. I found out on March 11 that they were coming the following week to do the interview in class.
MW: Did anyone from WGN or Saint Xavier University interview you?
CS: Yes, Muriel Clair came out and interviewed me, Kylie and two other students.
MW: Did they interview you before that day about the nomination?
CS: No, it’s purely based on the student nomination. WGN stressed that the awards are based solely on what students said in the nominations. They don’t call the principal and ask, “Is this person qualified?”
MW: Was the school’s administration supportive of having the television crews come into your classroom?
CS: They were very excited. They called me down to the principal’s office, and when you get called down to the principal’s office you get a little concerned. All of the secretaries and the administrators were there and they told me and congratulated me and gave me hugs.
MW: One of your students mentioned that she feels like you treat them as people, rather than just test scores or letter grades. Is that one of your philosophies of teaching?
CS: Yes, I feel like you need to make a connection with the students. They’re not just people who come into my classroom for 47 minutes and leave. I start off every day with something called “good things,” where we spend five minutes celebrating the good things everybody has going on in their lives. That way everybody in the class gets to know each other. As a teacher, that helps me to know when they have a day “off.”
MW: One of the questions on the nomination form has to do with innovative teaching strategies. Do you think that was one reason you got nominated?
CS: What they nominated me for may not seem that innovative, but I guess in today’s world it is. Last year I brought my European history kids to the NIU library and I made them choose a topic in history that they wanted to research, so we went to a research library and actually pulled books off the shelves and used the books for research. In the grand scheme of education, that’s not innovative. But for these kids who rely so heavily on technology, they don’t know what an index is. They don’t know how to go find information in a book to support an argument. While technology is getting greater and grander and allowing us to do so many things, books still are not available on the Internet because of copyright restrictions. And kids don’t understand that when you go to a research library like at NIU, that information has been vetted by professionals who can assure you that it’s reliable information. What’s on the Internet is by any Joe Schmo who’s out there. ...Ninety-five percent of the kids checked a book out of the library that day. ...I still believe that books and monographs are the best place for us to find information.
MW: Do you think the kids were captivated by the experience of seeing, feeling and smelling books?
CS: I told them that when I was at NIU I used to go sit in the stacks and just smell the books. I love the smell of old books. A lot of them, when they were sitting down, kept saying “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe everything I need is right here.”
MW: What do you tell your students about Wikipedia?
CS: I say that it’s a great place to get started and it’s a good place for background, but that Wikipedia has this awesome feature at the bottom called footnotes and other resources. That is where they need to go to do their research.
MW: How has your teaching style evolved over the last seven years?
CS: Education has changed and our kids have changed. I have become much more in tune with the technology that’s available to them. You don’t really get taught how to teach; you get taught your content and you get taught different skills, but you really don’t know until you get into the classroom. I think I went in with this perception that you need to be an authoritarian and have control of the classroom, but that’s not the case. It’s a shared environment, and they are as responsible for it as I am.
MW: Are your teaching methods still evolving? Do you have anything new that you have considered implementing for next year?
CS: We tell our kids to reflect on their learning all the time to make themselves better learners. ...I would like to work toward having my students take a lot more responsibility for their learning. I want it to be student-centered, student-oriented and student-started learning, and not teacher-directed. I want my students to be the initiators of the content in the classroom.
MW: Do you try to teach your students lessons that that can use in other classes, or even outside of school?
CS: The number one thing I tell my students even if they don’t remember anything else is that I want them to find out what truth means to them - to question society and question life around them. To learn how to research to find the correct answer and just don’t accept something at face value. Don’t accept what I’m teaching you at face value. If you don’t agree with something, go home and research it and come back the next day to challenge me.
MW: Did you have any teachers that inspired you to be a teacher?
CS: Oh, most definitely. The moment I found that out I won it, that was my first thought: “I need to thank all the teachers that I had because they’re the reason I am here today.” I try to take the good parts and the bad parts of the teachers I have had before and apply it. ...My seventh-grade social studies teacher Mr. Mason will always stand out to me. He started us that first day and told us what our lives would be like if we remained ignorant. It kind of scared us, but his passion for history really influenced me, and here I am as a history teacher. My own student council adviser in high school, Mrs. Stanley, influenced me to want to be a student council adviser myself.
MW: Have you had any students say that they wanted to be teachers because of you?
CS: Megan is actually attending Loyola University to become a history teacher, and I had her freshman year, so hopefully something stuck.