CHAMPAIGN — Duncan Bruce was listening to the "usually pretty boring" morning announcements over the PA at Franklin Middle School one morning when something caught the sixth-grader's attention.
Barnes & Noble was sponsoring a nationwide "My Favorite Teacher" contest — and Duncan knew just the right guy to nominate.
So the 12-year-old sat down and wrote a two-page poem about the many ways Mr. Immke, a special-education teacher at Franklin, has helped him.
"Whenever I have struggles with homework, he brings it all together for me so I can learn," Duncan says. "Most of all, whenever I find myself all stressed out, he always brings me a smile. I like that."
Duncan's winning words moved the judges, who selected Eric Immke as one of five regional winners in the bookselling chain's national contest.
With Franklin planning a ceremony Monday in Immke's honor, The News-Gazette talked with the 30-year-old University of Illinois grad about the teachers who influenced him, the joys of working in special education and more.
Q: How'd you get interested in teaching?
A: When I was in high school, I was what we called a "peer partner." We had a self-contained classroom for students who were learning life skills, and I worked with children with severe disabilities. You got to do that during your study-hall time instead of going to study hall, and initially, that was the appeal for me. So, instead of studying, I went and helped these kids out.
And I surprised myself because I found the work so rewarding. I grew to love it. I grew to love, for example, helping them going to stores, learning life skills. I did that for three years, and it changed my life. Honestly, my experience with those children got me interested in pursuing a career in teaching.
I also tutored a young man in Pontiac. He had some issues with organization. His parents hired me to tutor him, to help with work- sheets and stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed it. After that experience, I knew I wanted to do something in special education.
Q: What qualities are needed to be a good special-education teacher?
A: With any part of teaching, you have to want to get to know the whole child. Part of that is taking the time to get to know the child in and outside of school. You've got to know the child's family, and you need to be caring. That goes a long way with kids.
I also think you have to be flexible. There are going to be days when, whether it is your lesson plan or something you are doing, it just might not work. You have to be willing to change and figure out something new. You have to not be afraid to fail, because we all do. You have to work through and fix it and go from there.
Q: What was your reaction when you found out about this award?
A: Duncan's parents actually forwarded me the poem, and I was speechless. There's not any place in my life where I am speechless. I usually find something to say. I was not expecting it. I'm not even in his writing class. It was just a well-written poem.
But, being his teacher, I was just proud of him. It is awesome to see a student get recognized for something that he thought was a weakness — and it's not.
Q: What's the most satisfying part of teaching?
A: The "light bulb" moment — when you can see in a kid's face that something just turns on. I also still enjoy seeing students come into Franklin Middle School for the first time, not knowing where they stand or who they are. Sixth-graders all go through that. Middle school is a tough time. But by eighth grade, I see a lot of students leave figuring things out. Seeing how much growth is happening is extremely satisfying.
Q: Ever hear from your former students?
A: That's one thing that is nice about this job. It's amazing how many people you get to know over eight years. Between coaching and teaching here, I have developed amazing relationships with past students and athletes, and their families, too. There's not a day when I am around town when I don't run into somebody. Seeing my former students and players out of school — and what they have become — really makes me smile. That's a lot of fun.
Q: What's your advice for young people who want to become teachers?
A: Follow that dream. There are great teacher prep programs. If you want to teach, come back and talk to a teacher that you admired at your school and see what their path was. If you love kids, love the setting and love helping people grow, it's a great profession.
The Immke file
Wife: Jennifer Immke, a music teacher at Carrie Busey Elementary.
Job: Special-education teacher and basketball coach at Franklin Middle School.
Education: Attended Saunemin Grade School, Pontiac High and the University of Illinois.
Currently reading: "Championship Team Building," by Jeff Janssen.
Hobbies: Walking Kadin, a golden retriever; reading; watching movies.