Just a few years ago, Elyse Smith ’06 was a new Illinois State University graduate, taking her elementary education degree back to the Chicago area and starting a substitute teaching job in Oak Park.

Today, the 28-year-old kindergarten teacher is one of nine finalists for the 2012-13 Illinois Teacher of the Year, a prestigious honor that will be announced October 20 during a banquet in Normal.

Like the 200 other nominees for the Illinois State Board of Education award, Smith was initially recognized through the Illinois State Board of Education’s Those Who Excel local educator program. Smith was actually away on her honeymoon and returned home to a missed message about being a finalist for the top honor.

“I was ecstatic. I could not believe it,” the College of Education alumna said. “I’m amongst so many great educators, that it’s still hard for me to fathom that I was one of the final (nine).”

Smith teaches kindergarten at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School in Oak Park Elementary School District 97 in Oak Park, her hometown. Smith is a well-rounded teacher who educates her students well beyond the classroom, Longfellow Principal Angela Dolezal told STATEside.

“While she is a wonderful classroom teacher, she also goes above and beyond the expectation of meeting the needs of the students in her room,” she said. “She also teaches an after-school cooking class for our primary students. She is the team leader for the kindergarten team in our building, and she serves on a couple of district committees. Elyse is also the coordinator for our annual St. Jude Math-a-thon.” (In the past six years that Smith has coordinated Math-a-thon, the school has raised $32,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.)

“Elyse works hard for her students, for their parents, for her school, for her district, and for the community,” Dolezal added.

Smith said teaching has changed significantly even from she was a kid, playing “school” as a 6-year-old with her sister. Smith’s kindergarteners today are expected to know more than their peers 20 years ago, and they’re already learning how to tell time, add money and write sentences, Smith said.

“With kindergarten, a lot of people think it’s just nap time and snacks. There are such higher standards,” Smith told STATEside. “I don’t think I knew how to tell time until I was in third grade.”

It’s important to teach the whole child, she said, and to use various modes of teaching to reach different types of learners, like a child who learns best by hearing something (audial) or touching something (kinesthetic). Smith said the most beneficial takeaway from Illinois State’s teaching program were the clinical hours – completed just before student-teaching — she logged every day for three weeks at a school in Decatur.

It’s also critical that teachers keep their skill set sharp through continuing education and other outside work. Smith finished her master’s degree in reading from Concordia University in Chicago in 2009.

Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Gery J. Chico touched on that need for continuing education when he announced the nine Teacher of the Year finalists last month.

“Education in Illinois is constantly evolving, and these teachers keep abreast of recent reforms and are always working hard to improve their classroom practices,” Chico said. “They represent the best of the best across the state, and this program gives us the opportunity to publicly recognize their efforts.”

The 2012-13 Illinois Teacher of the Year will be announced during the Those Who Excel banquet October 20 at the Uptown Normal Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. The Teacher of the Year will represent Illinois at NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, and in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ National Teacher of the Year Program.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@ilstu.edu.