If you were to ask longtime Forest Park resident Catherine Ditto why she decided to pursue a career in education, fame and recognition would be well down the list.
Ditto, who teaches sixth grade math, science and writing at Burley Elementary School in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, said her biggest joy in teaching comes from the transformation she sees in each of her students from the first day of school through the last.
“It’s very fulfilling to see kids learn and have a sense of accomplishment,” Ditto said. “I really love building community in the classroom [and] watching students learn and grow over the course of a year.”
After years of influencing and educating Chicago’s youth, Ditto was recently named one of 213 math and science teachers nationwide to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Winners of the award, who come from all 50 states and U.S. territories, are selected from a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators after an initial selection process at the state level. Recipients of the Presidential honor receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation that may be used at the recipients’ discretion. All winners are invited for recognition at an award ceremony in Washington D.C. on Sept. 8.
While Ditto was nominated for the award by her school, she also had to put together an in-depth portfolio to present to the selection panel. She pieced together a presentation, including videotaped classroom lessons, several different writing components demonstrating mastery of content taught, examples of her instructional methods, and a personal essay discussing her teaching style. Additionally, Ditto submitted standardized test scores from her students in recent years, as well as letters of recommendation from colleagues and administrators.
After putting her best foot forward, Ditto was elated when she learned she had received the award.
“I heard about two weeks ago [and] I was thrilled,” she said. “It’s a long process and long wait.”
Regarding her career path, Ditto said she chose education after working with special needs individuals after college, and she was also influenced by her mother who worked in education years ago.
“My mother was a teacher, I loved learning and development, and I just think it was something that was in my blood,” she said.
Altogether, Ditto has taught children for 23 years. During that time, she has overseen several different grades at the elementary level and has been in her current position as a sixth grade teacher for eight years.
As for her passion for math, Ditto says she enjoys helping students overcome their insecurities about a subject that is often the most dreaded by students.
“One of the things I try to build off of is students’ understanding and help them approach math from different angles,” she said. “Not everyone will use the same strategy, so I really like for kids to discover that they are, in many cases, much better at math than they thought they were. I don’t expect for math to be everybody’s favorite subject, but I do get a lot of satisfaction when students change their attitude toward math.”
Ditto holds a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation from the University of Illinois and a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Concordia University. She is also a National Board Certified instructor.
Even though teaching has its controversies, such as standardized testing and ever-changing state standards, Ditto continues to be up for the challenge.
“More and more, teachers and schools are asked to demonstrate accountability, and the unintended consequence of that is these measures often compete with teachers’ time and focus [against] the teaching and learning we desire to do,” she said. “I love teaching.”