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State's Bilingual Teacher of the Year Ricky King says NCHS students navigating 2 worlds inspire him

Ricky King
Michele Steinbacher
Normal Community High School's Ricky King stands outside the WGLT studio in Normal. The state has named King Illinois 2023 Bilingual Teacher of the Year. He's a 2020 Illinois State University graduate.

Normal Community High School’s Ricky King says he was blindsided by the news he’s Illinois’ new Bilingual Teacher of the Year.

After all, the 2020 ISU graduate is only in his third year of teaching.

One of four teachers covering Unit 5’s high school-level English as a Second Language (ESL) program, King will be honored in April, along with the state’s other top educators, during a gala in Springfield.

The state’s recognition of the young ESL teacher doesn’t surprise educators who know King. They say he’s come on the scene with a passion for education that’s been contagious among both students and coworkers alike.

“He allows people to see the possibilities,” said Adam Zbrozek, NCHS principal. “He’s very involved and develops meaningful relationships with students."

Normal Community’s Meghan Hawkins co-teaches U.S. history with King. That’s a 26-student class split evenly between native English speakers and English Language Learners (ELL students). It’s one of several core classes set up that way — with a subject area teacher sharing duties with ESL faculty.

In addition, King teaches an ESL-only intensive English acquisition class.

Hawkins was so impressed after working with King, she nominated him to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) as a candidate for its 2023 Early Career Educator — an award for new teachers. Former colleague Rocio Fisher then wrote a letter of recommendation.

But in a twist, the board named King the state’s top bilingual educator.

At the most recent Unit 5 school board meeting, superintendent Kristen Weikle shared an account of witnessing him getting the news.

“He thought he was coming in to translate a call for me,” she said. Instead, then-State Superintendent Carmen Ayala was on the Zoom screen, and told King he’d been named Illinois 2023 Illinois Bilingual Teacher of the Year.

“I think the very best part of that day was seeing his students in the hallway when he walked out of the office. They were cheering, they were clapping. I think some maybe had tears of joy,” Weikle said. “The hugs and the handshakes and the high-fives speak volumes to Mr. King and the impact that he’s had on students.”

King brings passion for inclusivity

King’s coworkers say the ESL teacher’s mentorship goes beyond the classroom.

He’s made strides in building opportunities for the teens to identify as part of the general student body, rather than outsiders. But he’s also consciously focused on helping the students retain their first languages, and cultures, too.


King told WGLT he’s active as an advisor and coach to several NCHS clubs, including its Mock Trial team and the Music Technology club, as well as several clubs related to ELL students.

Creating those spaces within the school is one way Unit 5 can help the newcomers recognize they are as much a part of the student body as any NCHS teen, he said.

Fisher put it another way: “He doesn’t look at a student and say, ‘Oh you’re learning English’ or ‘Oh, you're an immigrant,' and that’s all,” said Fisher. “He says, 'Let’s take advantage of all this school has to offer.'"

That's through extracurricular activities, but also in providing extra language support so bright students can pursue an advanced placement course, said Fisher.

King pushes ELL students academically and “wants them thinking about the big picture — beyond high school graduation,” added Fisher.

The young ESL teacher, raised in the Chicagoland area, said fantastic teachers in his own youth inspired him to pursue this career.

“I had a few teachers in high school who made me feel cared for, and made it feel like my voice mattered — maybe in some classrooms where I felt it didn't."

He attended ISU, intent on becoming a social studies or language arts teacher. But a study abroad experience in Panama planted a seed.

“While taking my own classes there, I was asked to teach English as a second language to native Spanish speakers in Panama, and I kind of fell in love with that,” he said.

King continues to be a student himself; he currently is an ISU graduate student in English studies.

Ensuring the ELL students get the language support to be successful is key to his job, he acknowledges.

But there’s another role that’s important to him: Remembering ELL students, at the heart, are normal teens means he’s passionate about creating equitable experiences for this group.

Take the NCHS Hispanic Heritage Club, formed less than a year ago.

ELL student Aurora Flores wanted to create a space for Hispanic students to interact with one another outside of the school day, and she asked King to be a club sponsor.

“With all the different schedules, they (ELL students) often don’t see each other," he said. The club gelled, and even became a bridge between the mostly Spanish-speaking ELL students involved, and other students at school.

“We're able to kind of bring our Spanish speaking ELL students together with students who are native English speakers learning Spanish, and do things for Dia De Los Muertos, and other activities,” said King. The camaraderie creates a safe space to build friendships, and better understand each other, in turn making the school a better place, he said.

Normal Community High School teacher Ricky King
Courtesy Normal Community High School
Normal Community High School teacher Ricky King

Now, King's is trying to expand the NCHS Hispanic Heritage Club to include Unit 5’s junior high ELL learners.

He’s also cosponsoring a South Asian performing arts club at NCHS, with a showcase in the works.

More than 50 languages in Unit 5, variety of ESL programs

Unit 5’s ESL programs serve about 850 students — or about 6.5% of the enrollment of McLean County’s largest school district. That’s 80 more ELL students than the previous year.

“It is a bit of a jump, but it's nice to welcome more students into our programs, and into our classrooms, and into our support systems,” said King.

More than 50 languages are spoken in Unit 5 households. King’s students bring languages from Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, China, and more, he said. Spanish is the most common heritage language among Unit 5’s ELL students — from a variety of countries including Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Ecuador.

The second most common language is French. That’s mostly attributed to the area’s large presence of Congolese immigrants, with many of those students speaking French and Lingala, said King.

ELL students in Unit 5 elementary schools are immersed in bilingual programs. But at the secondary level, students are taking regular classes alongside native English speakers, while getting ESL teacher support.

“The ESL classroom at the high school level, a lot of times, the majority of the content is occurring in English and we — as ESL/bilingual teachers — are using home languages and heritage languages to supplement the instruction,” said King.

That can be in translating documents, or by using both English and a student’s heritage language. But it’s happening outside of the direct lecture or activity, he added.

Students inspire teacher to work on their behalf

King said he’s inspired by his students.

“Sometimes we forget that in addition to asking our ELL students to learn math, science, history, what have you — we're also asking them to do it in English, which is not their first language. That's not their heritage language,” he said.

Students not only bring a diversity of language, but also varied experiences from their home country and from their home lives, to school each day, the teacher said.

“And then they go home to an entirely different culture that is different from ours, and different from our school,” he added, saying students live in two worlds at once.

“Being Hispanic, sometimes I've felt that, like, I'm in two different worlds. And I think my students can relate to that, and kind of see me as maybe an inspirational force to try and make it through the day,” he said.

At that Feb. 15 school board meeting, King told Unit 5 leaders that as the child of Mexican-Americans in the Chicago suburbs, he’d been raised learning English as his first language, and only later learned Spanish at school.

Living in a household where the heritage language was lost made an impact on him. He doesn’t want his students to lose that heritage experience.

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.