Foertsch: 'You have to be caring'
As a proud member of the Champaign Centennial High School marching band, Peter Foertsch was tooting his trumpet the day Barkstall Elementary School broke ground on its new gymnasium.
"Little did I know that one day I would teach here and eventually become interim principal," he said.
Earlier this summer, Foertsch was among three educators elevated to interim-principal status at Champaign schools. His new role started on July 1.
It's familiar territory for the self-described "townie," a 2000 Centennial graduate who earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Illinois and spent the past decade on the Barkstall staff — eight years teaching fifth grade, the last two as assistant principal.
You could say working with elementary school students in Unit 4 runs in the Foertsch family: mom Debbie is a longtime enrichment teacher at Carrie Busey Elementary.
"My mom showed me how teaching can be a great way to help other people," Foertsch said. "She was an inspiration to me."
While getting ready to lead a school with 65 staff members and 485 students, the 32-year-old former National Honor Society member sat down last week with staff writer Tim Mitchell to discuss the family business, portable classrooms, his furry friend and more.
Did you always want to be a teacher?
When I was young, I really wanted to be a police officer. I think it was all about following and enforcing the rules and helping the community, and it fit my personality. But when I became I teenager, I started to work with kids and realized I loved it. I was a camp counselor at day camps, and I worked with kids at summer schools. And teaching has always been part of the blood of my family.
What do you remember most about your first year at Barkstall?
I was a fifth-grade teacher, just like my mother. I was absolutely nervous my first day. Any teacher who tells you they aren't nervous the first day is a liar. I wanted to set good expectations for the kids and make sure the kids were doing the things they needed to do. I just hoped I didn't mess it up too much.
What do you think are the most important qualities for a teacher?
You have to be caring. Being reflective of what you are doing is important. You need to be able to build relationships with families and students. That's important.
And the biggest challenge?
For me, it was when I put a plan in place to try to reach a student and did everything I could for that student, but it was not successful. Whenever that happened, it just made me all the more determined to help out the next student even more.
How about the greatest reward?
It's seeing the smile on a kid's face when he or she has made a new friend, learned something new or was really successful.
You've spent your entire career here at Barkstall. That must help with the transition to principal.
It is an advantage because I know Barkstall really well. The staff and the students come and go, but I know this building, its core values and its expectations. When I started here as a teacher, my fellow teachers helped me to grow professionally. Now, it is time for me to do the same for other teachers.
You have a portable classroom, one of several in a district that faces overcrowding issues. Is that a challenge?
Some people look at it as an eyesore, but I prefer to look at it as signifying the success of Barkstall. As we reached capacity, we had to add some more classrooms. It shows we are a really successful school, and parents and students really want to come here.
Barkstall has a balanced schedule, with classes throughout the year. What opportunities does that provide for the students?
I enjoy it, and all the teachers here enjoy it. But it forces us to work a little more creatively to plan things. Our teachers and I like the balanced calendar because we have three months to teach followed by three weeks to reflect on what we taught and plan ahead for the next three months.
The cycle of planning and thinking and reflecting never ends. Our teachers and students get what I call a "honeymoon period," with every break an opportunity to begin anew with a clean slate.
Do you have any pets?
Yes, I have a mixed-breed dog named Malcolm. I got him from a rescue shelter, and he is a great companion. I really love him.
Any advice to young people interested in pursuing careers in education?
Really make sure that you enjoy what you do. Working with students is not always going to be easy. Work in collaborative teams with other teachers as professionals.