DACC instructor came a long way to achieve state's top faculty award
DANVILLE – Kathy Sturgeon thought about her acceptance speech, wondering if she should tell her story.
"It's not really appropriate, is it?" she thought, just before accepting the Outstanding Faculty of the Year award at the Illinois Community College Trustee Association's annual convention.
But the Danville Area Community College instructor couldn't ignore that inner voice.
She listened to that voice, and the gasps, compliments and tears from her audience – during and after her story – convinced her that she did the right thing.
"I was really glad I did it," said Sturgeon, who has taught math, science and physics at DACC for the past eight years. On June 9, she became the third DACC instructor in recent years to receive the award.
Sturgeon's story began in elementary school, when she struggled academically. By third grade, she was considered a behavioral problem, and by the fourth grade, she was put into remedial math and reading classes. She flunked that grade.
"You can imagine my disappointment," said Sturgeon, whose working-class, rural Missouri parents emphasized to their children the importance of education as the way to a better life. "They were very upset about it."
Everything changed in the fifth grade, and it was all because of her teacher, Margaret Donley.
"She saw something in me no one else had ever seen. She put an extra effort into my education and explained to me that I could succeed," she said.
Sturgeon became an "A" student, from the fifth grade through high school.
She accepted her Faculty of the Year award in the name of Donley.
"I knew it was a little unconventional to accept in someone else's name, but I would never be in the position I'm in, if not for her," she said.
Donley, who's been retired from teaching for 16 years, said Sturgeon had the ability and desire. Donley recalls that Sturgeon was relatively new to the school, was young for her grade and just needed time to adjust.
"The desire was there. We just had to wake up that desire. I could see it. As a teacher, you can see these things. Some you have success with, and some you don't," said Donley, who also remembers Sturgeon's artistic ability. "She's a talented young lady. I think she was feeling too much pressure."
After a year with Donley, Sturgeon wanted to be a teacher.
"I wanted to be able to change lives like Mrs. Donley had changed mine," she said.
By her junior year in high school, she knew what she wanted to teach: physics. The reason was simple.
"Because it was so cool," she said. "It could explain everything that happened around you."
Although an "A" student, Sturgeon said the good grades, or the math and physics, never came easy.
"It took diligence and hard work," she said. "I'm not an extremely bright person or intellectual. I'm an everyday person who wanted to teach and wanted to teach physics. It was hard work. It did not come easy for me, and mathematics didn't, either."
Sturgeon often reminds her students of that, telling them how she flunked the fourth grade. She especially emphasizes it in her remedial math class.
"Those students hate math and don't want to try," she said. "It's really more of a motivational concept. Personal relationships are the one thing I try to develop with my students, so they identify with me and get comfortable with me."
Sturgeon was recognized as faculty of the year for her ability to motivate her students and for her creative approaches to teaching in the classroom and promoting math and science outside the classroom.
DACC President Alice Jacobs called Sturgeon to give her the good news. She immediately called her parents.
"My dad was so overwhelmed that he was speechless, and he's never one to show emotion at all. It gave me a little window into how proud he was of me," said Sturgeon, who's one of three DACC instructors in the math and science division to receive the award in recent years. John Hoagland won the award in 2001 and Lori Garrett in 2003.
In a release announcing the award, Jacobs said Sturgeon's love and mastery of teaching is apparent.
"One need only step into her classroom to witness the degree to which she engages her students and invests herself in their success," she said.
Sturgeon invests herself outside the classroom, too. She volunteers her time to market the college's engineering program, which has doubled enrollment.
And she stays in touch with her former engineering students and others.
"To me, teaching is always a very personable thing," she said. "I always try to make a personal connection with (my students)."
And technology has helped her keep in touch. She's in regular contact with about 20 students, but her e-mail list is much larger.
"I enjoy sharing their life experiences and knowing I was part of what got them where they are," Sturgeon said.
She, in turn, still keeps in touch with Donley, who appreciates the correspondence. Donley was flattered that Sturgeon accepted her award in her name.
"It makes me very proud," she said. "It means so much that she remembered me and contacted me and kept in touch. That's a teacher's reward."
Personal: A science and math instructor at Danville Area Community College for eight years. She's married to Gary Sturgeon. Sturgeon is a Missouri native who attended Northeast Missouri State University as an undergraduate. The school changed its name to Truman State University during her time there.
Favorite books: Classics like 'A Tale of Two Cities.'
Favorite kind of music: Loves it; listens to everything.
Favorite free time activity: Gardening.
If I won the lottery, I'd: Travel the world.
Favorite restaurant: Habana, a Cuban restaurant in Austin, Texas.