Colucci Finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year

Colucci Finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year

John ColucciJohn Colucci never dreamed he’d be a teacher, let alone one of the best in Illinois.

But a blunt charge by a friend and mentor during his first year at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) dramatically shifted his life course.

Once a social policy major with plans for medical school, Colucci now teaches middle school in Oak Park where he grew up and is one of 10 finalists for the 2017 Illinois Teacher of the Year award.

The winner will be announced during the Those Who Excel banquet on Oct. 22 in Normal, Ill. If Colucci wins, he will represent Illinois at NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. and in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ National Teacher of the Year Program.

“John is an exceptional person; so conscientious, dedicated and smart,” said SESP alumna Maylana Bernstein, a doctoral candidate when she met Colucci and now assistant professor of English education and qualitative methods at West Virginia University.

 "He stands out because he was steeped in research about student learning before becoming a teacher,” Bernstein said. “Some teachers never get involved in research; John had already read (Northwestern professor) Carol Lee before even stepping into her classroom.”

During his first year at SESP, Colucci spotted a flyer Bernstein posted in Annenberg advertising an undergraduate research assistant position.

Colucci got the job and spent countless hours transcribing, coding and analyzing video interviews with high school English teachers who were asked about their own personal reading habits and influences.

“(Maylana) and I wound up talking less and less about the coding and more about things like, ‘didn’t you love when the teacher did this?’” Colucci said.

Bernstein saw the writing on the wall and implored Colucci to use his gifts as a teacher.  Just a few days later, he had officially switched his major to secondary teaching.

“Her suggestion changed my life and the way I think about it,” said Colucci, the 2009 SESP student convocation speaker. “I’ve never looked back. It was the best decision I’ve made.”

Colucci especially wanted to teach in Chicago Public Schools where he actively pursued a student teaching position. His first job was at Kenwood Academy in Chicago. During those three rewarding but rocky years -- he was let go after his first year, rehired and then laid off again -- he worked for three principals with three different leadership styles.

“At Kenwood, they rejected scripted curriculum, owned it, and wrote it from scratch,” Colucci said. “There I learned teaching is an art, and you need to do what’s right for the kids.”

Now in his eighth year of teaching overall and his fifth at Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, Colucci has returned to his roots.

At Julian, Colucci started the Spoken Word club to give his students a place to start writing and talking about complicated issues, including privilege and poverty. He encourages his sixth graders to get involved in activities, and he assigns homework that involves conversations with parents to keep families talking and connected.

Colucci watches the video of his convocation speech at the end of every school year to remind himself why he went into teaching. And he credits Northwestern and SESP -- the little school that does big things -- for showing him that one person really does have the power to change something for the better.

 “People often say ‘leave things better than when you found them,’” he said. “But do people really know how to do that? SESP teaches you the big things that can happen because of one person’s ideas.”

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/21/16