My Why - Heather Popilek, Fifth Grade General Education Teacher

November 7, 2023

Topic: My Why


“Learning is all around us. It’s everywhere,” says Heather Popilek, fifth grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary School. “It’s not just within the four walls of my classroom. What we learn in school can be used outside the classroom and what we learn outside the classroom can be used inside school. What’s important is the way we learn and the influence of practice,” she says. To support students’ education, Popilek allows them to create their own learning path so they can learn in any environment. “I embed student choice in everything we do,” she adds. In fact, she gives credit to students who perform chores at home, who participate in extracurricular sports, who perform acts of kindness, among other “funwork” – as long as they learn something and then share it with the class. “When students have a choice, they are more excited about topics and are able to learn better,” she says. Popilek even gives her students an option of where they would like to sit in class – and they can switch each week. 

At one point, Popilek asked her students about their future careers. One young man indicated that he wanted to be a shoemaker. He then went on to create a mock-up shoe for his classmates to try on. “It was a wonderful learning experience for this student. His idea was not only formulated but then executed and he learned so many things from the lesson,” says Popilek. “And finally, he shared those lessons with his classmates,” she adds. 

It’s that forward thinking approach that keeps her at Community Consolidated School District 21. “I enjoy District 21’s instructional model of teaching instead of the paper and pencil one,” she says. “I like to guide my students toward collaborative, group-based work and am less focused on recall. I support larger ideas for students to learn and grow as individuals,” she adds. 

For her own growth, Popilek was a social girl with a creative mind and started making books with her mother at the age of four. She loved singing and participating in school performances and plays. She attended Illinois State University and interned at District 21, went on to get her master’s degree in educational leadership at Concordia University. She is now in her 24th year of teaching and spends her leisure time supporting her children with their interests, allowing them to make their own choices, learn from their mistakes and build on their experiences.