Teaching was not Linda O’Dwyer’s first career. Long before she was educating seventh and eighth graders at Parker Junior High School, she ran a travel business.
But 9/11 changed that business in an instant, and she was forced to reassess her vocation. O’Dwyer, who grew up in Oak Forest and moved to Homewood years ago, turned her attention toward local schools.
“I always wanted to go into teaching,” O’Dwyer said.
It turns out she is good at it, too. In her 15th year at Parker, O’Dwyer was the middle school teacher winner of the Council for Economic Education’s 2020 John Morton Excellence in the Teaching of Economics Award, which honors exemplary teaching techniques that improve their students’ understanding of economics.
“That was very surprising,” O’Dwyer said of the announcement. “It’s just nice to be recognized for what you do — to know the things that you do matter.”
The evidence of her successes was already there, though. O’Dwyer has taken Parker’s team into state and national social studies competitions, which she calls “the highlight of my teaching career.” And her colleagues, several of whom nominated her for the award, are quick to point out what makes O’Dwyer a special teacher.
Tiffaney Washington, an instructional coach at Parker, was among those who nominated O’Dwyer. She said it was amazing to see O'Dwyer win the award. She said O’Dwyer goes above and beyond in trying to implement all of the elements that make District 161 schools great.
“She’s one of those teachers that’s always going to be exhausted,” Washington said. “Oftentimes, great teachers like her don’t get acknowledged. She deserves it. She deserves to be recognized.”
A small downside to O’Dwyer winning the award in 2020 is that while she got to present at a national conference on Oct. 4, she did not get the tickets and hotel room that normally would have come with the prize.
“It ended up being virtual,” O’Dwyer said, noting it was still fun to present best practices and connect with other teachers. “I just felt it was an honor. It’s a national award, so it’s pretty cool.”
She was particularly proud to have won an award with a local connection. John Morton was an economics teacher at Homewood-Flossmoor High School for roughly 25 years. He went on to found, develop and direct Governors State University’s Office of Economic Education, where O’Dwyer said she took an economics class.
Teaching economics to junior high students is no easy task, according to O’Dwyer, but she said it is vital that they learn about taxes, personal finances, budgeting, investing and entrepreneurship. She also encourages saving habits, noting students at that age have misconceptions about wealth.
“I don’t feel they know the significance yet of personal finances at that age,” O’Dwyer said. “I try to teach them how it works.”
She does that through a “learn by doing” approach. A stock market challenge game is one of the big tools she uses in hopes that practice helps the topic resonate.
“She talks about her students as if they’re her own kids,” said Alyssa Zajack, an instructional coach at Parker. “She gives them experiences not all kids get. … She does a really good job of involving them. It’s not just sitting and learning; it’s interactive.”
The Council for Economic Education noted O’Dwyer’s business experience prior to teaching undoubtedly gives her a unique perspective in relating economics to real-world applications. According to the council, O’Dwyer has also used a C3 Tax Inquiry to focus on taxes and the national budget. She developed a Shark Tank simulation in which students create a business plan, apply for patents/trademarks and market their own business ventures, as well as a career and budget simulation. They also credited her with using debates to highlight economic policies of past presidents and analyzing the economic impact of the coronavirus on the economy using C-SPAN resources.
Mark Eichenlaub, one of the instructional coaches at Parker who also nominated her, said those activities are a big part of what helps O’Dwyer connect with her students.
“I’ve known Linda for 13 years now,” he said. “She always finds a way to keep it relevant to kids.”
Eichenlaub recalled working with O’Dwyer on some activities for children that had them making a budget to make sure their salaries would cover all of their bills.
“It was pretty eye-opening for kids,” he said. “It’s real-world adulting stuff.”
O’Dwyer said it is all with an aim of fostering academic and social growth for her students, who are at a turning point in their lives at those ages.
“You have to be a special person to teach middle school or junior high,” O’Dwyer said with a laugh, noting teachers are dealing with students who are dealing with adolescence. “It’s a great group. They’re so ready to become adults but they’re still kids.
“Just to see them grow over those years — trying to find their voices in the world — it’s inspirational. It makes me happy.”