When Joseph Duda ’15 heard Houston-area’s Sam Rayburn High School was in need of quality physics teachers, he stepped up. Without a single connection in Texas, the new teacher and Chicago native packed up his life to serve a diverse student population topping 55,000 in the Pasadena Independent School District (PISD).
“My students opened my eyes to a whole new culture down here in Houston, and they loved the fact that I was from Chicago,” he said. “Making an impact on the future of kids who come from different lives than I did is what kept me going and working so hard throughout the year.”
Duda’s dedication as a first-year teacher didn’t go unnoticed. He was surprised with the PISD High School New Teacher of the Year award in May.
“Joe lives and breathes for the well-being of our students here at Rayburn,” said Robert Stock, Rayburn’s principal. “In the short time that he has been here, he has exemplified what it means to be an educator: leader, mentor and changer of lives.”
Outside the classroom, the young standout educator embraced the task of creating district-wide physics curricula, and he was also called upon to present at PISD staff development meetings.
Duda said his success was predicated on a solid foundation at Illinois State, where he honed an array of instructional methods to help kids learn. From day one, he was focused on getting to know his students, and his lessons brought up topics that mattered to them.
“I believe I was so successful at forming great relationships with my students because I kept class interesting and engaging for them …two important things I took away from the education program at ISU,” he said.
Duda’s Lone Star State transition was also eased by fellow physics education alum John Ratko ’15, who made the jump with him. The duo roomed together and earned the apt moniker of “The Midtown Boys” around Rayburn.
“We were able to plan and come up with ideas at any given time,” Duda said. “This gave us an advantage. Two minds are better than one.
“John made my first year of education much easier than I expected it to be. Without him, there is no district award.”
The Midtown Boys are just two of ISU’s 15 alumni educators working in PISD, and the more than 600 in the greater Houston area. That’s why their PISD colleague and fellow ISU alum Rick Stauffer ’93 is trying to create an alumni network that connects every Redbird—not just educators—who lives within 50 miles of the city’s center.
The effort began with an alumni event at Minute Maid Park, where the Chicago White Sox defeated the Houston Astros 7-6 in a thriller on July 2 that featured Sox ace Chris Sale.
“Houston is a great city with tons of things to offer, and this alumni group can help the new residents with the ways of Texas and Houston,” Stauffer said. “Events like the White Sox game are a chance for all of us to get together and celebrate ISU sports, extracurricular activities and other ISU-related things.”
With a talent-laden alumni community, Houston has become a perfectly normal place to meet a Redbird. Duda and Ratko agree these connections to home helped them take flight during their first year as educators.
“Beginning teaching takes a lot of commitment, patience, and effort,” Duda said. “Yet the struggle is so worth it when you think about the relationships you’ve made and how much your students have grown.”