Amber Decker has found her home, well, at home.
The fourth grade teacher at Woodland School is a Streator native and graduated from Woodland High School. After attending Illinois Valley Community College for two years and graduating from Illinois State University, she returned to the school of her youth in 2005.
Decker says she was inspired to go into teaching by some of her own teachers at Woodland.
"I've always loved Woodland — the small community," Decker said during preparation time at a round table in her classroom. "Because I went to high school here I was familiar with the community, the small rural school. Some of the students I'm having are children of my childhood friends from school. When you get into bigger districts, you don't get that connection. You get it maybe with the students, but not with the whole community."
Decker has been named the Excellence in Education educator by the Woodland Education Foundation for the 2017-2018 school year.
"I feel like we have so many great teachers here that getting this award — it means a lot," she said. "Thinking of all the great teachers around here and that they chose me, it's very humbling."
Superintendent Ryan McGuckin describes Decker as "student centered, hard working, and someone who will go above and beyond not only for her students but also all Woodland students."
"Amber can be counted on to provide not only background of the 'why' we do certain things certain ways but also provide insight into how we can do it effectively," he said. "She can be counted on to provide guidance and direction in the best of times and the most challenging times."
In her first few years at Woodland, Decker bounced around with one year in fifth grade, one year in second grade, one year with Title I students, and has been in fourth grade ever since.
"The fourth graders are the perfect age," she said. "They're not so big that they're not excited to come to school and they're not so little where we're still getting in the core of reading, multiplying. They're right in that middle age where they love to be here and they want to be here and they're excited."
In working with the students, Decker uses hands-on activities, particularly in math. using manipulatives and computer-based learning. A manipulative is an object designed to help students perceive mathematical concepts. She also utilizes small group learning that she believes makes it easier for students to participate.
"There are always challenges, maybe a reluctant student overcoming those challenges and figuring out what that student likes to do," she said. "Maybe they don't like to read, but you find the right book and they light up, or they are finally getting fractions."
Decker says she is motivated most by engaging the students and the stellar staff with whom she works.
"I've learned so much from each of them," she said. "We just build off of each other and everyone's welcome to listen to each other's ideas and we just keep growing together."
To be considered for the Excellence in Education award, a teacher must demonstrate continued learning. Decker recently completed her Master's degree program as a Reading Specialist through Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais.
"I have been doing research on guided reading," she said. "As a group, we've been talking about how to transform the program ... a few years ago I worked with a reading specialist. We're mapping the curriculum and making sure they're meeting the common core standards."
Decker looks back on her own education at Woodland and can't help but recognize how far education has come in the time since she was a student.
"I feel like it's huge," she said. "Back when I was going to school is so much different than what the kids today are going to do, because technology just keeps building and building, so things are going to keep growing and changing for things they're going to need to do when they're adults."
As for her future, Decker is pretty sure she can see into the crystal ball that tells her what she will be doing.
"I will be here for a long time and I don't plan on going anywhere else," she said. "I have two little boys here. We were living in Streator and we moved into the district. I wanted my kids here, because I love the small community and the small classrooms."