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Naperville native garners California Teacher of the Year honors

Laughlin and her students work on a reading lesson at Hansen School in Orange County.

Laughlin and her students work on a reading lesson at Hansen School in Orange County.

The line “I’m moving out to California to establish my career” is not often reserved for new teachers from Illinois. But Naperville native Amy (Brophy) Laughlin ’98 found herself sharing that exact news with her parents after attending the University’s annual education career fair.

In 1998, the Golden State’s transition to a 20:1 classroom size introduced a severe teacher shortage.

“They were going to graduate approximately 15,000 teachers that year, but had something in the neighborhood of 25,000 positions to fill,” she said. “And let’s be honest, they came to Illinois State to recruit because it’s by far the best teacher preparation institution in the Midwest.”

Laughlin, who completed her student teaching internship at a yearlong Professional Development School (PDS) in Wheeling, can recall the trepidation she felt over leaving her family and friends. But there was no fear about teaching in California.

“I felt ready. The part I was most confident about was teaching,” she said. “The PDS internship placed me in a school on the very first day. From parent-teacher conferences, to assessments and testing, I saw and experienced it all.”

Laughlin hit the ground running as a fourth and fifth grade language arts teacher. She also earned an M.S. in education from California
State Bernardino and an administrative credential at California State Long Beach.

Along the way, Laughlin discovered her true passion was as a reading intervention teacher serving students with a disability or other obstacle standing in their way to literacy.

“There is a statistic in the area that a child who is not proficient at reading by third grade is four times more likely to drop out of high school,” she said. “I think of that every single day; I have to help them learn to read because their future depends on it.”

Laughlin’s process begins by building trust and establishing a strong rapport in her classroom.

Amy Laughlin in at the state Capitol in Sacramento to receive her California Teacher of the Year Award.

Amy Laughlin at the state Capitol in Sacramento to receive her California Teacher of the Year Award.

The payoff has been phenomenal.

“My students know my classroom is a safe place to try, and when they fall, I am right there to pick them up again and remind them that I believe in them,” she said.

On the days when breakthroughs happen, Laughlin gives these moments proper recognition. There are high-fives all around, calls to parents, and a personal visit by the principal.

“For me, teaching someone to read is literally magic,” she said. “After several months of practice, they suddenly ‘have it’ and you can see them physically transform as a person.”

In 2015, California recognized Laughlin as a Teacher of the Year. During interviews, one of the messages she communicated at the governor’s mansion was the need to improve student teaching requirements in California. Currently, the state only requires two six-week placements.

“New teachers come into the classroom with some background knowledge but without hands-on experience,” she said. “I am a proponent of new teacher support and stronger teacher preparation.”

Although Laughlin misses her home state, she has built a career, family, and made an impact in California schools where she is needed the most—an ultimate goal for all Illinois State education alumni.

“I can’t picture myself doing any other job,” she said.

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