Ashley VanSickle‘s excellence as a teacher is without question.
VanSickle, a 2013 alumna of the NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction alumna, received a 2017 Outstanding Beginning Teacher Award from the Illinois Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
Now, she’s a 2022 Rockford-area Golden Applewinner.
“I’m just really honored. It was humbling to read the nominations from my students, from their parents and from my former students, and what they had to say. The fact that they stopped or paused their lives to take the time to fill out their nominations was huge,” says VanSickle, who holds a BSEd. in Elementary Education.
“And to have this support, especially in a year this tough, was really kind of incredible,” she adds. “It just validates why we come to school every day, and it’s a great reminder of why I’m in the classroom, why I do what I do and why it’s important to keep going, even when it gets tough.”
Despite her own professional accolades, however, the Harlem Middle School social studies teacher knows that some of the most excellent teachers in her sphere are the seventh- and eighth-graders in her classroom.
“They teach me never to take myself too seriously. They teach me to laugh. They teach me that my outfits are definitely not that cool. They teach me all about the fashion and the music and the culture,” VanSickle says.
“Honestly, they keep me grounded,” she adds. “A lot of times, we as adults get so serious and so wrapped up in life that sometimes we forget to connect with people. But, especially with middle-schoolers, they’re all about socializing. They definitely remind me that person-to-person, people interaction and relationship-building are the most important thing.”
Students foster her love of the classroom.
“Every day is a different situation. You never know what’s going to happen one day to the next, or all of the different moments you’re going to have,” she says.
“You really get the opportunity to have fun with students, build those connections and really make lasting impacts on their lives: What’s their story? How can you support them, and really kind of walk alongside them, especially at the middle school level?” she adds.
“They’re at a crucial point in their lives where they definitely need support and they need someone in their corner, and I think that showing up every day and being able to be that for somebody is really cool.”
BECOMING A TEACHER wasn’t originally on VanSickle’s college agenda.
“My focus when I was going into business was international business marketing, because I’ve always loved traveling. I traveled a whole bunch as a kid and then throughout my life, so that was the major draw for me: to be creative but also to travel,” she says.
“Then, come the summer before I came to Northern, I was just having one of those crises where you wake up and you’re like, ‘What am I doing with my life? Is this my purpose?’ she adds. “And I realized that, for my whole entire life, people were saying, ‘You should be a teacher. You would be an awesome teacher. You’re great with kids. You volunteer in the church.’ ”
Nonetheless, she had tried to elude that outcome – until that moment of awakening.
“I realized that teaching was my passion, that I loved working with kids, that I always loved volunteering and babysitting and doing all of those things,” VanSickle says. “And I realized, maybe I need to do more. I can always travel, and I could always be creative as a teacher. Maybe I just need to step into that purpose I was trying to avoid.”
She became a fifth-grade teacher at her alma mater Rock Cut Elementary School and, true to her love of and curiosity about other places, filled the bookshelves with optional reading in Spanish, French and Russian.
She visibly celebrated the cultures and languages her students brought to the classroom.
She instituted a program called “Einstein Hour,” allowing students to choose subjects for research. Some chose recipes and cooking; others opted for architecture and nuclear weapons.
She makes sure to have fun in her classroom, putting her sense of humor on full display.
But her thirst for travel coaxed her from that job to a different life on an US military base in Hohenfels, Germany.
VanSickle’s friends were stationed at the base, located about an hour from Nuremberg, and told her of a job opening for an instructional technology specialist. She applied.
“When I had the opportunity to teach overseas on a military base for a year, I just couldn’t resist. It was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” she says.
“I got to help with their technology rollout, going one-to-one with Chromebooks,” she adds. “I also partnered with their teen center, and I got to do a bunch of really cool things with the Boys and Girls Club using different technology pieces there.”
ON HER RETURN to Harlem School District 122, VanSickle interviewed at Rock Cut but was intrigued by the possibility of teaching social studies at the middle school.
Her goal, she says, is to make each lesson real, fun and engaging.
“I love social studies because you get to talk about different perspectives in history: History is all about the people and the events they went through in their lives,” she says.
“We look at historical figures, looking at their choices based on the events that they were living, and relating those to what we’re going through now in our lives. Eventually, we all are part of history,” she adds. “So when we take a look at those decisions, and bring them to life for kids, and they get to put themselves into history’s footsteps, it really makes it that more meaningful for them and gets them excited about history.”
Students also are excited to learn more about VanSickle’s year abroad.
“I worked with the middle school and high school kids there and then came back to share that with my students here who are the same age,” she says.
“They were super-fascinated with all of my international stories and to hear that our soldiers and our soldiers’ families live in other countries – that they are sacrificing their normal American lifestyle to move with their families around the world,” she adds. “To hear what it’s like for other teens around the world really opened my students’ eyes to different lifestyles.”
For VanSickle, those eyes are her reward.
“My ‘why’ is my students,” she says. “If I can make a difference in their lives – build them up, make them smile, support them on their journey – then it’s all worth it. Just seeing them succeed, or just seeing even those small victories, is definitely worth getting up, coming in and doing the work every day.”
NIU College of Education alumnae Lorrie Hill, BSEd. in Special Education, ’94, and Wendy Taylor, MSEd. in Educational Administration, ’05, were among the 20 finalists.