Motivating Young Minds

Kim Radostits never imagined she would be named Illinois’ Teacher of the Year. She was more focused on making a difference in young lives. Indeed, the Spanish teacher at Oregon High School, in Oregon, Ill., is not only shaping future leaders, but she’s helping them to realize their value.

“I want to help my students find their potential,” she says. “Sometimes, it just takes an outsider to help you see something in yourself you don’t see.”

Growing up in tiny Fairdale, Ill., Radostits always recognized the importance of community and belonging, and she suspected there was a place for her in education. Preparing for the real world was eye-opening.

“I went into teaching as somebody who had lived a very charmed life, growing up in a small town,” says Radostits, who graduated from Northern Illinois University in 2007. “I had awesome teachers who put me in a good place, and I always felt confident. I’m not going to say I was a straight-A student by any means, but mostly because I didn’t push myself as hard as I could have.”

That’s one reason why, for the past 16 years, Radostits has been a source of encouragement for students, especially those who are apt to fall behind. Her first year in the classroom, Radostits and her colleagues discovered their freshmen class had failed 237 courses – an average of almost two classes per student. So, the teachers launched an after-school program to get the lowest achievers back on track. The first year, teachers targeted 10 students who were failing everything. These days, seven teachers support 16 high-risk students.

“They got their grades up, but we learned what the kids really needed wasn’t homework help,” says Radostits. “They needed adults who cared about them, who would set goals and help them stick to those goals.”

A passionate advocate for the teaching profession, Radostits is also quick to mentor young teachers and encourage college students who are interested in the profession. Those were key factors in her recognition as 2022 Illinois Teacher of the Year, and her status as a finalist for the 2023 National Teacher of the Year. The recognition has put her in front of Illinois legislators and the State Board of Education, as she highlights the importance of keeping freshmen on track.

“A lot of the kids who are the most disengaged are some of the most resilient humans in this building,” says Radostits. “Some of these kids have challenges outside of the classroom. If they can take that resilience and grit they have in their outside lives and apply it to school, there’s no stopping them. It’s just making them realize that they have it in them.”