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Julie Wittenborn-Sikorski Wins ‘Neighborly’ Award for Phenomenal Contribution to Special Education

Julie Wittenborn-Sikorski

Carbondale, IL – Julie Wittenborn-Sikorski has been a teacher in special education for 34 years. In her years of service in Murphysboro, she has written and received several grants, including funding to purchase a StarLab inflatable planetarium and a stream table to provide engaging hands-on experiences to students throughout the Jackson County area. Julie retired in June 2020.

WSIU Public Broadcasting, a service of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is pleased to announce Julie Wittenborn-Sikorski as a recipient of the ‘Neighborly’ award in the Educator category.

“This is a retirement surprise. Some of my Murphysboro and Trico School District colleagues nominated me. My last year of teaching started with the strike and ended with the COVID shutdown, and I lost my mom in the middle. It was a tough way to end a career, but I work with some great educators, who make this job so fun and rewarding,” said awardee Julie Wittenborn-Sikorski.

“I graduated from Murphysboro High School and went to college at the University of Tulsa. My first job was teaching hearing-impaired Navajo kids in Gallup. I stayed in rural New Mexico for a number of years and then came back here, just to go to graduate school and be closer to family about 30 years ago.

"A lot of what I have done over the years was just building confidence and convincing students that they can learn but in a different way. Seeing their eyes light up when they finally get a concept, watching the wheels start turning and then they start asking their own questions. That aha moment is always the best part of it."
Julie Wittenborn-Sikorski

"I remember being excited to get the first Apple green screens and the truly floppy disks, and now we can participate in online webinars with NASA scientists and other students and teachers across the country. The host of those webinars encouraged me to request astronaut photography with my students, and we did. My students and I were looking at a project about the flooding from the Big Muddy to the Mississippi. It took about three years for conditions and timing to be right for the ISS crew to capture the images. Now there is a series of pictures on Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth taken from the International Space Station that notes, ‘image acquired for Murphysboro Middle School.’ That was really cool,” said Julie.

As a co-founder of the Informal Partnerships in Rural Schools, Julie is always at the forefront of helping Southern Illinois schools and teachers increase their instruction quality. This network of partnerships involves teachers volunteering their time, sharing equipment secured by grants outside individual school districts, developing websites and participating in areas of expertise to help other teachers become more comfortable teaching different science disciplines.

"Julie’s efforts are purely voluntary, and she has often used her time to promote this. She volunteers for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM) night events in other communities, trains other educators to use the StarLab and the stream table and transports equipment on her own time."

“Small rural school districts cannot always purchase and store large, unique pieces of expensive equipment, so we combined our resources and talents and started writing grants to purchase equipment we could share. It started with a stream table from Little River Research and Design (a Carbondale company), and then we purchased a Starlab inflatable planetarium. We also support and help each other coordinate special events like STEAM nights. I have checked out NASA lunar and meteorite samples for school visits, scheduled visits with Adler Planetarium’s Astro Road Trip Team, helped plan activities in preparation for the solar eclipse(s) and shared seeds and plants from our native plant and pollinator gardens. We have also co-authored some articles and developed websites to share what we are doing and learning with other rural educators. Developing these partnerships has been a highlight of my teaching career. There are some amazing educators around here, and I have been fortunate to be able to work with many of them,” said Julie.

Julie’s efforts are purely voluntary, and she has often used her time to promote this. She volunteers for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM) night events in other communities, trains other educators to use the StarLab and the stream table and transports equipment on her own time. She also connects educators to experts in various fields and is one of the first people to reach out to other educators by volunteering to do unique projects in their classrooms. Julie’s reach goes far beyond her home district because of her generosity and passion for educating students.

“The sad reality of being a special educator is students don't get placed in your classroom because school has been easy for them. They haven’t had adequate success in the traditional, general education classroom setting. A lot of what I have done over the years was just building confidence and convincing students that they can learn but in a different way. Seeing their eyes light up when they finally get a concept, watching the wheels start turning and then they start asking their own questions. That aha moment is always the best part of it. You can see it in their body language, and you can also see it when they’re not getting it and when they’re feeling beaten down. That is the worst part of it. A love of learning doesn't come from being spoon-fed and filling out worksheets. I believe it comes from being challenged, encouraging curiosity and doing real hands-on experiences, ” said Julie.

"A lot of what I have said to students over the years goes something like ‘I have more confidence in you than you have in yourself right now. I know you can do it with my help if we keep working at it. I won't let you give up. I know it’s hard right now, but we’re going to do it step by step. You will get there'"
Julie Wittenborn-Sikorski

“There’s no one way to teach, and how I taught when I was a new teacher compared to how I taught 34 years later is totally different. I’ve never been that sweet little old lady teacher. That was my mom. I’ve always kind of been a gruff teacher who challenges kids—more like my football coach father. A lot of what I have said to students over the years goes something like ‘I have more confidence in you than you have in yourself right now. I know you can do it with my help if we keep working at it. I won't let you give up. I know it’s hard right now, but we’re going to do it step by step. You will get there,” said Julie.

Julie has served on several boards and presented at multiple conferences nationwide to share projects she has done with her students and the outreach of the Informal Partnerships in Rural Schools. Julie’s attendance at these national conferences has benefited both schools and local communities in many ways. Quality education in rural schools has remained a passion. “One of the best programs that I have been involved with and I really want to give a shout out to is the SIUC NSF Robert Noyce Master Teachers Fellowship. This program has and continues to be instrumental in bringing together and supporting teachers from area school districts. They have provided financial support, educational opportunities, access to regional and national experts and much needed encouragement to many teachers in the area. Working with this group of educators has been a wonderful opportunity to collaborate and has helped me stay excited about teaching to the end because it has kept me learning new things, too.”

About One Region All Neighbors

Inspired by the life and legacy of Fred Rogers and in honor of his vision, WSIU’s One Region, All Neighbors initiative encourages community members to nominate those who are making positive contributions through acts of kindness, compassion and service. Winners are chosen from nominations submitted by the public in five categories— individual, youth, educator, community group, and business. WSIU recognizes these winners on its television and radio stations, website and social media.

About WSIU Public Broadcasting

WSIU Public Broadcasting is licensed to the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University and is an integral part of the College of Mass Communication & Media Arts on the Carbondale campus. The WSIU stations reach more than five million people across six states and beyond through five digital public television channels, three public radio stations, a radio information service, a website, and education and outreach services. They partner with other community organizations to promote positive change and to support the academic and public service missions of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Learn more and get the latest station news online at wsiu.org and on WSIU's Facebook and Twitter pages.

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