Toni Van Laarhoven used to share the stage with her twin sister as they rocked clubs with their band Go Figure. But those days are behind her now as she devotes her attention to making a difference in the classroom.
Since childhood, she always wanted to work with children with disabilities. Having a sister with disabilities, she knew it was a career that would allow her the opportunity to make a difference.
Van Laarhoven’s passion for teaching is evident in the classroom. Utilizing a combination of real-world experiences with humor and storytelling, she strives to prepare the next generation of educators by showing that teaching can be fun, too.
“I enjoy teaching teachers,” Van Laarhoven said. “We feed off each other, and I think we motivate and inspire each other; I hope to inspire them to be advocates for children.”
Van Laarhoven has accomplished a lot since she began teaching at NIU in 1995. Among her accolades is her role in launching Project MY VOICE, a partnership between NIU and Indian Prairie School District 204 that aims to empower youths with disabilities to have a say in their individualized education plans.
NIU students participate in the program each semester and are paired with an Indian Prairie student with developmental disabilities. The program became so popular among students and faculty that it became a regular course offered within the department. Van Laarhoven said MY VOICE provides NIU teacher candidates authentic hands-on experiences.
“Its success is important because our students have the ability to profoundly change the lives of the students with whom they work by giving them a voice in planning for and achieving their dreams and goals for the future,” she said. “It gives our teacher candidates an opportunity to really understand what it means to put the needs of their students first and to plan instruction and opportunities that will help them to succeed in the future. Those are the skills they will need to be exemplary and effective special educators.”
Former student Amy Long said that Van Laarhoven is the best professor she had while at NIU.
“I could not think of a better deserving individual for this award than Toni,” Long said. “I could only hope to be as compassionate and in love with special education as she is. What an amazing woman, teacher, role model and mentor.”
For Van Laarhoven, nothing is more exciting than working with students.
“I like seeing that light bulb go off and watching as my students come up with incredible ideas,” she said. “I literally get goose bumps. I get such a charge out of knowing that they’re going to make a difference.”
Anna Brady, a former student and current special education teacher, said that Van Laarhoven’s teaching methods and overall passion for special education was instrumental in helping her make the decision to go into teaching.
“Dr. Van Laarhoven consistently brings an abundance of energy, passion and research-based experiences to the classroom,” Brady said. “Her enthusiasm for teaching people with disabilities radiates into all aspects of her courses.”
Van Laarhoven resides in Aurora with her husband and two children.