District 129 teacher inspiring young minds for more than 15 years
BY KATHY CICHON For Sun-Times Media
Charting her own course: Fearn Elementary teacher Ann Butcher teaches a fifth-grade math class using graphs. Butcher is also the Young Scholars director at Aurora University. | Mary Compton~For Sun-Times Media
The kindergarten photo that hangs above Ann Butcher’s desk includes her answer to the question she was asked at the time: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Even at that early of an age, she knew she wanted to become a teacher. And she did.
Just as she continued to excel in school to make her dream came true, the North Aurora resident is now being honored for helping students to do the same.
On Feb. 6 Butcher was honored with the Illinois Association of Gifted Children Distinguished Service Award. West Aurora School District 129, where Butcher has taught for more than two decades, recognized her during its Feb. 20 board meeting as well.
The fifth-grade teacher at Fearn Elementary School in North Aurora recently said she is “humbled” by the honor.
“Getting kids excited about learning — lifelong learning is my target,” she said.
Butcher has been teaching in District 129 for the past 23 years. She spent 12 years at Nicholson Elementary in Montgomery before moving to Fearn. Prior to working in District 129, she taught preschool.
While teaching at the elementary level, she was asked if she would be interested in teaching a summer gifted session. That summer, Butcher and her husband, Steve — who also teaches in District 129 — taught the program.
“If we don’t challenge them, they just sit,” Butcher said of gifted students.
The following year, Aurora University offered the Young Scholars program, which is designed for gifted and talented preschool through eighth-grade students. She continued with Young Scholars, now sponsored by the Packer Foundation, ever since. For the past 15 years, she has served as its director.
The program brings in experts as guest speakers, and offers students a variety of hands-on experiences they normally would not get during the regular school year. Young Scholars has drawn students from throughout the area — and even other states — because of the unique experiences offered to younger gifted students.
Mike Smith, principal at Fearn Elementary School, worked with Butcher as her partner teacher when he entered education about 11 years ago.
“We taught fifth grade together and she was, to a degree, a mentor teacher to me at that time,” he said. As their careers moved forward and he continued through administration, he took with him the suggestions and strategies of how to reach highly capable students, he said. Last year, Smith’s and Butcher’s paths reconnected when he came to Fearn as principal.
“It’s neat to see that she still has that high level of skill and ability as she works with gifted and talented students,” Smith said. “And not only them, but those that are struggling. She even approaches those at-risk students in a manner that still challenges them on a higher level, which is neat to see.”
For the last 14 years, Butcher has served on District 129’s Gifted Committee. She was away from the classroom for a couple of years while serving as both science and K-12 curriculum specialists for the district. Among her tasks was helping teachers implement a new, upgraded science curriculum. Four years ago, she returned to teaching.
“To have your own classroom and have your own experiences with them, there’s nothing compared to it,” Butcher said. “I enjoy the personal relationships.”
Butcher knows firsthand the importance of providing academically talented students with additional learning opportunities. As a child, she double accelerated in math and science. The teachers who helped her achieve beyond the regular curriculum are, in part, what inspired her to work with gifted students.
“I valued the fact that they considered I could have a higher ceiling of learning,” she said.
In addition, all three of the Butchers’ sons have gone through District 129’s gifted program. Their youngest was just recently offered two full-ride scholarships.
“I feel like I won the lottery,” Butcher said. “That’s what we need. To keep them challenged and keep them interested and learning at their level.”
While academics are important, Butcher also stresses extra-curricular activities as well.
She heads the Environmental Club for Fearn’s fifth graders, who do service projects in the community. She is also the fifth-grade Math Bowl coach, helping prepare students for competition against the district’s other 10 elementary schools. Fearn’s team has won nearly every year she has been coach. Butcher also serves as the head science coach, called the Elementary Tri-Chair for the 10 elementary schools in the district.
“I try to support the love of learning anywhere I can,” she said. “Hopefully my enthusiasm for learning is infectious in all I do...”
Butcher and her husband also manage their youngest son’s 14U travel baseball team.
“Sports and fitness have been a big part of my life — being a three-season athlete in high school — and hopefully sending that message to my children about health,” she said.
Throughout the years the teacher has also continued to be a student. In 2003, Butcher earned her doctorate in leadership and curriculum instruction from Aurora University. For her dissertation, she researched the impact of life experience on the academic success of gifted female students.
After finishing her doctorate, Butcher was asked to teacher at the university, first as an adjunct professor and then pro-rata. She teaches the graduate-level course “Methods of Teaching Math and Science in the Elementary School.”
“I love learning,” Butcher said. “I still get that same high from teaching students as I did when I went to school.”
In addition, Butcher has worked with gifted learners and teachers at Illinois Math and Science Academy with research. She has continued to take graduate level courses, and she also frequently presents at state and national conferences.
Fellow fifth-grade teacher Chris Zima has known Butcher for at least 25 years — first meeting her when she taught at the preschool that Zima’s mother started. Zima got to know Butcher when he started working there as well.
“And to this day I still go to her all the time (to ask a question and) get her opinion on any important topic,” Zima said.
Not only does she help students, but other teachers as well, he said.
“I probably wouldn’t have made it through the first year at Fearn without her,” Zima said.
He said Butcher is nice, fair, shares with colleagues, knows the material and puts in as much extra time as she possibly can.
“Everything you want, basically, in a teacher,” Zima said.
The relationships Butcher builds with her students often continue even after the pupil has left the classroom. She often gets email from both former fifth-graders and grad students who want to keep in touch. Occasionally, she will even get a request from a former student who is now in college and wants to be a student teacher in her classroom.
“That is just the highest honor,” Butcher said. “They value what you gave them, and they want to give back and be like you.”