Like mother, like daughter

URBANA – When Christy Simon joined the Urbana school district as an Urbana Middle School math and language arts teacher this fall, the position was new to her, but the district certainly wasn't.

Her mother, Cathy Simon, has been teaching at Leal Elementary School for 34 years. Education runs in the family; Cathy's father was a teacher as well.

"I believe that children need to come to school and feel safe, to learn how they learn best," Cathy said in an interview in her daughter's new sixth-grade classroom a few days before school started.

That was how Christy, who frequented Cathy's workplace, felt as a kid in her mom's classroom.

Though the daughter attended schools in Champaign and then Mahomet, "I might as well have gone to Leal, as much time as I spent there," Christy said. "I graded papers, cut things out, colored things. ... I liked to grade papers."

She also liked many of the other aspects of teaching. "I had a seating chart, a plan book," she said of the classroom she pretended to lead as a child. "I ran that school in my room."

Lisa Fink, who taught at Leal with Cathy for eight years, said Christy frequently went to Leal for lunch with the teachers or to volunteer tutoring the kids when she got older.

"Cathy's so passionate about teaching and about kids that I'm sure it had a huge influence on Christy," Fink said.

Christy also got a sense of the workload.

"People who think teachers teach from 8 to 3 and then have summers off – uh uh," Cathy said. "(Christy) saw what a lot of people didn't see, that teaching was a full-time job."

"I remember watching TV at night and her having stuff sprawled out to grade," Christy said. "Since I lived with a teacher, I saw everything through my eyes but also through the eyes of a teacher."

Though her mom thought she'd make a good lawyer, Christy had other intentions. "I wanted to be a teacher," she said. "(Cathy) tried to talk me out of it because I wouldn't make any money."

It didn't work. Christy got her undergraduate degree in education from the University of Illinois. A Golden Apple scholar who received a scholarship to pursue teaching, she left the area to take a job as a math education coordinator and teacher at a Chicago school that taught children from preschool through eighth grade.

"I loved my job. I loved my apartment," Christy said of her year in the Windy City. "It was a wonderful experience, but I was miserable away from my friends and family."

So she applied to fill a position of a departing UMS teacher and got the job this spring. She said she was attracted to the size of the district, its proximity to the UI – where she'll go to graduate school – and its familiarity.

As Christy tries to establish her own identity, she's a little nervous about following in her mother's footsteps – maybe too much. Cathy has already received school e-mails meant for Christy.

"I always knew she was a good teacher because people talked about her," Christy said of her mom. With that reputation and long tenure, Christy believes that in the district, "I'm always going to be Cathy Simon's daughter."

"They are both very outgoing and personable. That makes them very approachable as well for students," Fink said. "They both have a witty sense of humor, which is crucial in the classroom."

But though they share many traits, including facial features and a way of interrupting the other, they're not identical.

Cathy loves the curiosity of the third- and fourth-grade students she teaches, grades that Christy said would "drive me nuts."

Christy loves how middle school students are "starting to take on a personality of their own," she said. "You can make such an impression."

Cathy knows where all of her school materials are, but Christy says anyone else trying to make sense of her mom's organizational style would run into problems. The daughter said she's obsessive about her classroom, which already has neat sections for all her supplies and upcoming projects.

Both, though, share confidence in the other's abilities.

"I've got stuff from her and she, in the last couple of years, has gotten stuff from me," Christy said.

"I think she's got what it takes," Cathy said. "She's going to be an excellent teacher because she's got the enthusiasm I hope I instilled in her."

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