CARPENTERSVILLE – Barbara Malinger realized her passion for teaching struggling readers 15 years ago when she started at Perry Elementary School instructing first-graders who had steep language learning curves.
That passion drove her to get a master’s degree in reading education and inspired her to become a Perry literacy teacher, a role that allows her to take the lowest literacy students from kindergarten, first and second grades, and mold them into fluent readers.
Malinger’s passion now has been validated.
The Illinois Reading Council recently selected Malinger as the state’s Reading Educator of the Year, an honor given to teachers who promote literacy among students. Malinger will formally receive the honor later this month during a conference in Springfield.
Malinger, who normally avoids the spotlight, had only gratitude for Carpentersville District 300 literacy leader Sue Larson, former Perry Principal Craig Zieleniewski and fellow literacy teacher Tammy Bennett, who all nominated Malinger for the award.
Malinger also had to detail her teaching philosophy in a letter to the reading council. She described it as a hands-on approach involving visual gimmicks and objects that help students see and understand the day’s reading lesson.
The award-winning literacy teacher sat down with reporter Stephen Di Benedetto to discuss the statewide honor, her passion for literacy and her love for teaching.
Di Benedetto: What was your reaction when you found out you had won?
Malinger: I came home. I had been training in another district. Two of my older children still live at home, and the letter came. It came in a letter from the Illinois Reading Council. They (her kids) had been holding it up to the light and saw “Congratulations,” so they knew I had won. They were waiting for me to open it. They couldn’t wait for me to open it, and they were yelling, “Congratulations, you won” ... I was pretty astounded. I was very surprised and then I didn’t really tell anybody. I waited about a week before I told my principal here. I had to let it settle in.
Di Benedetto: Does having a statewide recognition validate your teaching at all?
Malinger: It does because you go about your job and you do your best. I’ve been here for 15 years, and I’ve done the reading job for 13 years. Because we are in such a diverse population here, I feel we work really, really hard. It was nice to be recognized, and it kind of puts our school on the map that somebody from our school was honored. So that’s nice.
Di Benedetto: As a literacy teacher, what are some of the challenges of teaching students who aren’t reading at grade level?
Malinger: A lot of the kids we get here, come to school and they aren’t really prepared. They haven’t had letter-sound knowledge. They don’t have books in their home. They are sometimes far behind where other schools are in our district. We have that challenge. But really once you start to work with them, they all want to learn how to read. It’s a very rewarding job.
Di Benedetto: What are the keys to be an effective literacy teacher?
Malinger: First, it has to be hands-on and it has to be fun, and knowing them as individuals and people first. We do all kinds of testing, and I have all the data and the numbers, but it’s like I want to know them, just as a learner and as a kid. What makes them tick?
Di Benedetto: How have the students kept you motivated all these years to keep teaching literacy?
Malinger: Reading is my passion. I love reading. I love teaching reading, and I love teaching from the beginning where they come with nothing. I open the first door to books and reading for them. Even with second-graders, sometimes they are reading but they aren’t always comprehending. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I wake up happy every day because I get to come and do what I love.
The Malinger lowdown
Family: Widowed, with three children – Amy, 33, David, 31, and Joanna, 28
Favorite teaching lesson: Reading strategy using hands-on activities
Side job: Adjunct professor at Judson University in Elgin, teaching teachers how to reach non-English native students