Three local educators were honored this year with the Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award.
Wendy Kassing, of Shiloh District 85; Emily Auffenberg, of O’Fallon Central School District 104; and Jana Vasquez, of O’Fallon School District 90, were among the 109 honored during the 28th annual awards ceremony celebrating the outstanding efforts and achievements of educators throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area. All honorees were chosen by each teacher’s school district administration and colleagues.
Fifth- and sixth-grade special education teacher Wendy Kassing, of O’Fallon, has been an educator at Shiloh Middle School since 2006.
“I feel blessed to be honored with such an award, and to know who has gotten it before me, too, it’s just all surreal,” Kassing said.
Kassing, who has lived in O’Fallon since her youth, said she knew teaching was her calling when she would play teacher during her childhood.
“Education has always been so important to me, since I was a little girl,” said Kassing, who received her undergraduate degree from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and her administration master’s from McKendree University.
Kassing said her mother, Felicia Dixon, a special education assistant in O’Fallon District 90 was a major reason for her choice career path.
“She always encouraged and inspired me to follow my dream of teaching,” Kassing said.
“I actually ended up working with the teacher (Martha Blackburn) my mom worked with while I was doing my student teaching, so that was really fun and interesting,” she said.
Blackburn, who Kassing counts as one of her mentors, is now the O’Fallon Township High School special education director. Blackburn is also a recipient of the Emerson award. She received it teaching at Fulton Junior High about 20 years ago.
“It was pretty cool, because everyone I know that has gotten this award are really outstanding teachers and have mentored me. So it’s just a great feeling to even be considered for this,” Kassing said.
Kassing she always tries to put students first.
“Regardless of what challenges I may face, when I am advocating for the kids here, honestly, they’re kind of like my kids. When their parents aren’t here, I’m their advocate. So that’s why I feel like my biggest strength is, because I’m honestly not here to please anyone else, but to make sure the kids have what they need to succeed,” said Kassing, who teaches language arts and math to 20 students at SMS.
The mother of two — Lilly, 12, and Isabella, 2, — Kassing said her family has been “pillars of strength” for her over the years.
“My parents, Felicia and Lee Dixon, have been so supportive, and my husband (Todd), too. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them and my children,” Kassing said.
About three years ago, Kassing took about a month off from teaching to overcome the loss of her unborn child.
“Because of what I had to go through in terms of loosing my son, I am the teacher I am today. It changed my teaching for the better, completely. After I came back, and in the last few years as a teacher, I just feel like I’m better, more compassionate and more understanding,” Kassing said.
Shiloh Superintendent Dale Sauer said Kassing is a “remarkably compassion and student-centered professional.”
“She works with students who struggle and often lose confidence in themselves because of their struggles. Wendy has a nature that helps them succeed and regain that ability to stand stronger on their own,” Sauer said.
“Wendy is a dedicated teacher who always puts her students needs first. She works hard to ensure that her students get a great education. She spends countless hours preparing and working on her craft. She is a great role model for our students and teachers,” said Dan Loepker, SMS principal.
Emily Auffenberg, of Swansea, has been an educator for seven years, the last four as a sixth-grade teacher at Joseph Arthur Middle School.
“I love teaching, and it’s been a passion of mine,” she said.
However, she was “completely surprised” to win the Emerson Award. While it is a personal honor, she also considers in a feather in the cap of the entire school.
“I feel like it really brought us all together here in our district, and I feel like it makes me want to be even a better teacher to hold that honor and influence others,” she said.
Auffenberg said that without the support and guidance of her peers, she would not be the teacher she is today.
“(It’s) because of some of the help of my coworkers and how they have taught me to handle different situations and how to help the students,” she said.
Auffenberg said her childhood dream of becoming a teacher was rooted in having influential instructors growing up.
“My mom and I joke that we always knew that I was going to become a teacher, because whenever I was little and would play with friends or my five siblings, I would always want to play school, and I would be the teacher,” said Auffenberg, who graduated from Illinois State University.
Currently, Auffenberg has 17 sixth-graders she teaches all subjects to, but that hasn’t always been the case.
“I have taught a little of everything — from math and science to English and social studies — to about 120 students in different levels (of middle school), but now I have the same students for all subjects, and I really enjoy it,” she said.
Ensuring the students get through all of the content can sometimes seem “intimidating,” she said.
“But I’d rather us take our time making sure the students master the material than cover four chapters extra,” she said.
Auffenberg said the best teachers are those who work to improve their students’ learning experience.
“I’m big on looking at how well they can grow — not necessarily just their final scores — but how much did they learn and improve,” Auffenberg said.
Her favorite part of teaching is that “everyday is something new.”
“I love the challenge that it brings, and that I am always learning, too. And seeing the kids when they understand something new and how they choose to persevere is so rewarding,” Auffenberg said.
Outside the classroom, the newlywed Auffenberg said she’s spending quality time with her husband, nieces and nephews.
Veteran educator Jana Vasquez, of Mascoutah, has been teaching middle school literature at Fulton Junior High for 21 years.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a teacher,” said Vasquez, whose twin sister, Gina Etter, teaches literature at Mascoutah High School.
“So playing school at home was a big part of my childhood. We have four brothers, so we would hunker down in our bedroom and play school,” Vasquez said.
No longer just pretending, Vasquez said she and her sister bounce and share ideas off each other, constantly.
“It’s nice to have someone close,” said Vasquez, who obtained her undergraduate degree from McKendree University and her administration master’s from SIUE.
For Vasquez, the students are what keep her coming back.
“I love being in the classroom. I love teaching literature. I’m very passionate about it,” she said. “The conversations I have with the students and seeing them gravitate more towards reading after spending some time with reading in the classroom — I love that part,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez, who teaches two sixth-grade literature and skills classes, said she pushes to get her students to work “outside of their comfort zones.”
“I love to see that personal growth through the year,” she said.
The individual student growth from the beginning of the school year to the end is like night and day, according to Vasquez.
“As a writing teacher, I see that a lot of them struggle to put that pen on a paper … They don’t want to have to put their thoughts down. And slowly and surely, we chunk it. I support them. They get there, and by the end, the results are so different,” she said.
The curriculum Vasquez teaches allows for opportunities that lead to bonding, she said.
“We can relate to a character and their conflict and talk about how it relates to their lives now. So I love how, I think, they trust me and they open up, and they can really share some personal stories, and I think they become really close to their classmates in here,” Vasquez said.
Traditional time management and planning doesn’t always work for her students, which can be a challenge, Vasquez said.
“I measure my weaknesses by the students’ reactions and growth, and I try to find activities, of course, that challenge them,” she said.
Vasquez attributes her successes in the classroom to her peers.
“I like to think of myself as a huge team player. We’re a unit. We support each other, and I have a wonderful team that surrounds me everyday,” Vasquez said.
Carrie Hruby, O’Fallon Distrist 90 superintendent, said Vasquez is an “outstanding educator.”
“She engages her middle school students in lessons and ensures they love to learn about language arts. District 90 is fortunate to have her on our team,” Hruby said.
Vasquez said husband Jay, and two kids, Julia, 14, and Parker, 9, have also “heightened my awareness in the classroom.”
“I think, honestly, after becoming a mom and them going through school has enhanced my knowledge of being more sympathetic towards kids and seeing the full picture. Sometimes children’s behavior is indicative of what’s going on outside the classroom, too,” Vasquez said.