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McConnaughay spotlights everyday hero: Rene Swidenbank, 2017 Kane County Educator of the Year nominee

This week, Senator McConnaughay spotlights Rene Swidenbank, German language teacher at Geneva High School and nominee for the 2017 Kane County Educator of the Year Award.

Swidenbank was nominated for the high school category by the staff and parent community at Geneva High school, where she has worked for 15 years. Her passion for the German culture and dedication to building strong relationships with students has earned her recognition as a top educator.

Although she has dedicated over a decade to the teaching profession, she spent her early post-college years in the private sector. She lived in Germany for four years working for an American specialized insurance company, and later returned to the United States to focus on raising her family. She said she discovered her calling late in life as she joined the staff of Geneva High School at 40 years old.

She was originally brought on to teach for the social studies department, but the administration recognized her passion and intensive experience with the German language and shifted her to the foreign language department.

Her personal goal as an educator is not only to help students develop as foreign language speakers, but also inspire them to travel and seek out international experiences. Throughout the year, she incorporates as much German culture into the classroom as possible, whether it be using German art, music and foods, or teaching about dance and annual festivals.

“There’s really no limit to how you can bring culture into the classroom. I know my students always love the aspects of German celebrations and food,” said Swidenbank. “I always try to incorporate German music as well to make it more fun and interesting. Language is an elective class at our school. I have only had one student in 15 years tell me their parents made them take it. All the kids choose to be there—it’s really great.”

Unlike other subjects, the German and French teachers at Geneva High School teach the same groups of students for multiple years. The consistency and relationship that builds over years offers the opportunity for Swidenbank to really get to know her students and learn their strengths and weaknesses. As someone who did not originally pursue language instruction, she says that the foreign language department has been instrumental and inspiring in her career as a German teacher.

“Our language department is really amazing; you can’t help but come to school and be inspired by these educators” said Swidenbank. “They’re really innovative and collaborative—we all pull strategies from each other to better engage our students.” 

The department not only encourages students to enroll in a foreign language elective but also provides opportunities for students to travel and participate in cultural immersion activities. Each year, they organize an International Week to promote cultural learning. They are currently in the process of planning their first cultural immersion day, which will feature different stations like international art, dancing, music and food. Additionally, various teachers plan immersion trips to bring students to foreign countries during spring break.

“I don’t need to inspire my students to be German teachers; I just want to inspire them to see the world,” said Swidenbank. “I don’t care where they go—I just want them to do it and have that experience. It was so life-changing for me personally.”

As a member of such an accomplished school and department, Swidenbank was thrilled and touched to be nominated for the prestigious award. She said she wished she could give every teacher a nomination book from students and the community, so they could feel the positive validation it brings when working in such a challenging profession.

The Kane County Regional Office of Education hosted its 42nd Annual Educator of the Year award ceremony on April 28 by honoring 45 outstanding educators nominated as academic leaders by their peers. The award was presented to one educator in each of nine separate categories: classroom preschool teacher; classroom elementary teacher; classroom middle school teacher; classroom high school teacher; school administrator; student support personnel; early career educator; private/parochial; educational service personnel; and one overall top educator of the year.

“The Geneva High School foreign language department is absolutely phenomenal,” said Senator McConnaughay. “Rene’s passion for foreign language and culture is so inspiring and impactful on the students. She really opens their eyes to the opportunities that foreign language and cultural immersion opens up for them in college and adult life.”

Senator McConnaughay is proud to recognize Swidenbank for her Educator of the Year nomination and thank her for her ongoing dedication to Geneva High School.

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