Illinois’ Teacher of the Year has a passion for teaching high school students the importance of real-world experiences.
Susan Converse graduated from SIUE with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism in 1990 and a Masters in Educational Administration in 2004. She now has been teaching Special Education at Edwardsville High School for .
Converse opened a coffee shop at her high school in 2016 called the Tiger Den. The Tiger Den Coffee Shop has served as a stepping stone as a self-supported vocational training center for her students.
Having an impact on students’ lives is what Converse believes makes teaching an important job.
“Being a teacher means that you have a position to directly impact individual lives on a daily basis and you impact those lives greatly because everything you say, every comment you make and every look you give is internalized by the people around you,” Converse said. “You have a responsibility to be the best you can be.”
A speech the former Illinois Teacher of the Year gave at the ceremony, where Converse was named this year's Illinois Teacher of the Year, said something that stuck with her.
“The former teacher of the year gave a speech that night and before they announced the winner I was listening to her and I remember her saying that this award doesn’t mean you’re the best teacher; it means that you’re a teacher that will be a voice for students and for teachers across the state,” Converse said. “I’ve kind of held onto that.”
Converse has worked in the field of education for the past 23 years. She began her teaching career in 1995 and has taught at the elementary, middle school and high school levels and worked as an administrator for nine years.
Alton High School journalism and English teacher Annice Brave was a part of the selection committee who chose Converse to be a part of the 10 finalists up for Illinois Teacher of the Year out of 85 applicants.
“Former teachers of the year in Illinois and other finalists for the award get together and we watch videos and read through their applications and then select 10 finalists,” Brave said.
The 10 finalists then have their videos sent to the State Superintendent, Tony Smith, who makes the final decision.
Brave said she believes Converse was deserving of this award because of the passion she showed when speaking about her students.
“When we a heard her talk about her students, that is where we saw the sparkle in her eyes, the emotion and passion in her voice, and that’s when we knew she was certainly deserving of this recognition,” Brave said.
The principle of Edwardsville High School Dennis Cramsey said Converse is deserving of being named Illinois Teacher of the Year because of her passion for teaching.
“To see Susan [Converse] in action with kids and see how much she loves kids amongst teaching becomes obvious of why she is deserving of that award,” Cramsey said.
Converse has taught students with emotional disabilities, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities and autism. She works with them on their transition needs as they prepare to exit the school system.
“In the state of Illinois, a student with a disability can stay in school until their twenty-second birthday if you indicate a need for them to require additional transition needs,” Converse said. “The students I work with, that is the nature of their disability, they don’t naturally acquire skills and you have to pretty much teach everything that typically comes naturally for other students like life skills, social skills and, of course, academics.”
Converse said she felt the need to have something different for the students that stayed in school past grade 12. She wanted to make a difference between school and adulthood where her students could be independent.
“Many [students] graduate without being employable or able to secure a job and when I was working in administration I would go to their exit meetings when they were 22 and I would sit there and listen to the fact that there was nothing for them after [high school],” Converse said.
Converse said after working at the Tiger Den her students have shown changes in their abilities to be independent.
“Parents have told me they are seeing the skills generalize at home, they are starting to clean up after themselves, can make things to eat for themselves and are doing things they depended on others to do,” Converse said.
The support and success of the coffee shop have allowed Converse’s students to support individuals in need within the school district and the community. Over the past two years, the Tiger Den Coffee Shop has donated more than $10,000 to local families in need and has supported community initiatives that promote inclusion of individuals with disabilities.
Cramsey said the work Converse has done with the Tiger Den is amazing for the students and the community.
“What [Converse] is doing with the general education students to broaden their eyes on acceptance of all people and understanding that every individual has something to contribute is monumental,” Cramsey said.
After being named Illinois Teacher of the Year in October of 2018, Converse was surprised to see people believed she deserved that kind of recognition.
“It was a complete shock,” Converse said. “I felt like I really didn’t deserve teacher of the year; the program itself deserved an award.”
Teacher of the Year in each state is then up for National Teacher of the Year. Converse didn’t make it to the top four, but she believes it was for the best due to the traveling she would have to do if she won.
“My [students] are very close to me and a lot of them are cognitively much younger than their chronological age, and it’s hard on them when I’m gone and it’s hard on me,” Converse said.