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Portia Downey calls it a career

January 9, 2019

Portia Downey has asked the question countless times during her interviews of Educate U.S. applicants.

Why do you want to teach?

She knows what most will say. I always wanted to become a teacher. I love working with kids. It’s usually the same.

Portia Downey

Faced with the same question, however, Downey hesitates. She doesn’t have a profound response and, in fact, she only has the stock reply. “That’s hard to answer,” she says finally. “I just always wanted to be a teacher.”

But her eyes sparkle when she talks about why she loves teaching, from kindergarten through graduate students, and the amazing role that teaching has played in her life.

Downey, coordinator of professional development in the College of Education, will retire Dec. 31 after a 23-year relationship with NIU. Her final day is Dec. 21, ringing the bell on a career in education that began 43 years ago.

Affirmation of her “why” came as recently as Dec. 3, when she happily visited Rolling Green Elementary School in Rockford. Samar Al-Zoubi and Amal Hindi, two of her Social Studies Methods students in the M.A.T program, are teaching there.

“They are both Arabic and teaching in dual-language classrooms. They have shared in the NIU Methods class stories from their classroom and wanted me to see what it was like in ‘real time,’ ” Downey says. “Amal was ecstatic that I came, and I experienced first-hand the classroom in action.”

Hindi was teaching math in the Arabic language; the first-graders, however, were required to answer in English. “It was amazing how the students could easily switch back and forth between the languages,” Downey says.

Downey teaches a Science Methods class
for the MAT program at NIU-Rockford.

When the students began to read aloud an Arabic-language book about a naughty dog, an adorable little girl walked up to Downey and tugged on the leg of her pants. “Don’t worry,” the girl assured her. “I’ll tell you what the story says.”

“It’s a different world,” Downey says. “You’re the one on the outside.”

Visiting Al-Zoubi’s classroom, Downey heard children count to 100 and sing songs. “It was really cool,” she says. “It was a good feeling when I watched her and saw that she was doing some of the things we had talked about in class.”

Raised in Loves Park, Ill., just north of Rockford, the then-Portia M. Hanebuth graduated from Harlem High School in 1971 and enrolled at Rock Valley College.

So did her mother, whose name is also Portia M. Hanebuth. “She went back to school when my two brothers and I were in school,” Downey says.

Two years later, they collected their associate degrees at the same commencement ceremony, their identical names called one after the other. “There was a little newspaper article about the two of us graduating together. She still has it. She’s really proud of that.”

Mother headed for local Rockford College while daughter traveled south to Sangamon State University in Springfield, both on their way to earning bachelor’s degrees in Elementary Education.

Downey began teaching in 1975 at Ralston Elementary School in her hometown Harlem School District 122. That was the same year her mother began a 31-year career in Harlem, often taking NIU Huskies as student-teachers.

“When I started, I was teaching kindergarten. I loved teaching kindergarten, and thought I’d never teach anything else. Well, I ended up teaching fourth, fifth, sixth, inclusion, undergraduate and graduate,” Downey says. “The NIU students I talk to always say to me, ‘I’m only going to teach this grade,’ and I say, ‘Well, we’ll see about that.’ Every one of the levels I taught, I loved. The variety is good. You can also learn a lot about yourself.”

Downey taught science lessons about sound to Chinese visitors to the NIU College of Education.
Downey taught science lessons about sound
to Chinese visitors to the NIU College of Education.

She stayed at Ralston until 1983, when she took time off to raise her own children, Justin, Kyle and Bailey.

Returning to teaching in 1995, Downey moved to Machesney Elementary School and took on an additional role as coordinator of the Harlem School District/Northern Illinois University Partnership. Her NIU teammate was a young professor named Laurie Elish-Piper.

“When I met Laurie, we started writing integrated units as a way to model best practice. Methods instructors from NIU and teachers from Harlem met through the summer and put our ideas together,” she says. “You start with a question about water quality, for example, and then everything is integrated into it: science, social studies, language arts and technology. The units were used as models for the pre-service teachers and cooperating teachers to use in their classrooms during their clinical experiences.”

In 2001, Downey began a two-year leave from the Harlem School District and became a teacher-in-residence in the NIU College of Education.

“My job was to work with the methods teachers and bridge that gap between theory and practice,” she says. “Whatever theory they were teaching, I would demonstrate what it would like in the classroom – how it would play out.”

A return to Harlem lasted one year. By the time she came to NIU full time and permanently in 2004, she had earned an M.S.Ed. in Curriculum and Supervision and was close to completing her December 2005 Ed.D. in Curriculum Leadership.

Her first role was to manage Project REAL, a $5 million, five-year Teacher Quality Enhancement Grant with the Rockford Public Schools. From 2010 to 2015, she worked as the college’s School-University Partnership coordinator and as manager of the PALS (Promoting Achievement through Literacy Skills) grant, another project with the Rockford Public Schools.

Later duties also included working with Educate U.S. students, developing the Educate Local program, coordinating the Dean’s Partnership Grants and teaching methods classes herself.

Students in Downey's Social Studies Methods class threw her a retirement party.
Bon voyage: Students in Downey’s Social Studies Methods class threw her a retirement party.

“My true love is always teaching, but never did I ever think I’d end up teaching science. They said, ‘Can you teach science methods?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ ” she says. “But now I think it’s one of my favorite things! I love to teach science. You can easily get the students the most engaged, and there’s so much you can do.”

Evidence of that enthusiasm was impossible to miss in her NIU-Rockford MAT classes in science methods as she demonstrated fun, crazy and even Halloween-themed hands-on lessons for her career-changer students. In their role-play as children, they saw exactly how to create similar excitement for learning in their eventual classrooms.

Downey took the same fascinating approach in other methods courses.

She challenged students to build musical instruments out of things clearly not musical, to guess the purposes of a bucketful of old, rusty tools she’d bought at a flea market and to explain all of the historical events in Billy Joel’s hit song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and then to write additional verses – in the same meter – that would catch the 1989 song up to 2018.

“Teaching the M.A.T. classes is an altogether different type of teaching because of the range of the students. You have a wide range of difference in experience, age and culture,” she says.

Downey and Jennifer Johnson, director of teacher preparation for the NIU College of Education, present alumna Ashley Van Sickle (right) with the 2017 Outstanding Beginning Teacher Awards from the Illinois Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

“Something I had to figure out when I was started teaching the method classes was that it’s not about teaching the content. You’re trying to model for them how to teach,” she adds. “How are they going to learn to do it unless the experience it themselves? That’s the best way I could figure to teach them. They liked experiencing the lessons the way their students would, and felt it was very practical. They’d come away every night with ideas they could take back to their classrooms and use.”

When some of those students who were already teaching on Type 29 certificates returned with photos of children attempting the same activities, Downey knew that her philosophy was working.

It also reminds her of her time at Sangamon, now known as the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“The way I learned to teach – and the real reason I went down to UIS – is because it had a very progressive approach. They believed in engaged learning, getting you out in to the schools on the practical side for lots of experience,” she says. “That was way back then, and now look how strategies have come back around. Now it’s like it’s a new thing.”

Forty-three years later, as she and her mother look back at their time in education, they both focus on “the many students we hope we really helped” and the projects and lessons that most excited those children.

They also marvel at diversity of children in modern classrooms and the expectations placed on them by state and federal standards.

Nonetheless, her advice to licensure candidates at NIU who will confront those challenges is simple. “I always tell them to build a relationship with the students and to make it interesting,” she says. “It’s not about the paperwork. It’s about getting the kids engaged and motivated to learn.”

Who says that science lessons aren’t fun?

Downey and her husband, Greg, now are ready to live under the same roof. He’s in their condo on Castle Rock Lake north of the Wisconsin Dells, where he works from home in trusts and investments, while she’s living with mom in Loves Park during the week.

They’re also ready to dote more often on their four grandchildren, all younger than 4.

Justin and Sarah are the parents of Owen. Bailey and Eric are the parents of Doug. Katie (Greg’s daughter) and Anthony are parents of Nikko and Novien. The couple’s other adult children are David, Kyle and Jennifer.

The Downeys also plan to travel, having whetted their appetite with a Viking River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest this fall. They’re leaving later this month for Belize and Nicaragua. They also enjoy domestic vacations; a map of the United States hangs on their wall, and they scratch off a state once they’ve had two adventures there.

Yet education will remain her passion, thanks to that quartet of toddlers.

“This is a new generation – as grandparents, we have to keep up! Even Doug, who is 1, can understand Spanish and English even though he can’t really talk very much,” she says. “They’re teaching him Spanish at the daycare! Bailey said to him, ‘You want water? You want water?’ He looked at her and said, ‘¿Agua?’ It will be the norm for the next generation to be bilingual.”