You know what’s refreshing? Talking with someone who really loves her job, especially if that someone is a teacher. Cheryl Highlan has been teaching for 24 years. A Chesterton native, Highlan’s career started and bloomed in the Valparaiso school system, where it’s still going strong. Highlan currently teaches at Thomas Jefferson Middle School.
“I absolutely love my job,” Highlan said. “It’s awesome.”
Highlan especially loves the dynamic of the grade she teaches—6th grade. Middle schoolers are not only full of energy, they also need a lot of encouragement to grow into their unique selves. As we all remember, middle school can be at once fun, carefree, intimidating, and scary. Highlan says friendships are the key to her students’ happiness.
“Sometimes it’s hard for kids to find that good friend, and when they come to a bigger school, that changes,” Highlan said. “A lot of those kids that had a hard time connecting find that best friend [in middle school.] I have so many middle school friends from when I was young that are still my good friends. I always tell my students, ‘Some of these people are going to be your longtime friends.’”
Of course, even with good friends that help shape a child’s school experience, no growth would be possible without a stellar set of people leading the way.
“You hear parents say that the kids really blossom in 6th grade,” Highlan said. “I credit that to our teachers and our staff in making them feel comfortable.”
Highlan stressed how important this time in an adolescent’s life becomes.
“By the end of elementary school, a lot of kids are just realizing who they are,” Highlan said. “Sometimes their whole persona changes by the end of 6th grade—it might be bad, it might be good! A person can really expand, though. I love that about middle school.”
When it comes to Highlan’s teaching trajectory, she says the influence of technology and social media are the biggest changes she’s experienced.
“We try to educate [the students] about digital citizenship and being appropriate online, and balancing technology in their lives,” Highlan said. “We talk about their digital footprint—what are they leaving online?”
Highlan herself once had her students Google her to illustrate how easy it is to trace everything back to a person.
“Good thing I said a nice thing about that one restaurant!” Highlan said. “Had I written a nasty post, that would have followed me, and who knows if I could have just been angry that day, or in a bad mood? So, we push that issue—what do you want your digital footprint to be?”
Highlan views social media as a source for both positivity and negativity in a child’s life; in her mind, an adult can help navigate that fine line.
“As teachers, we’re discouraged from being connected with students on social media,” Highlan said. “But I wouldn’t mind being one more positive adult in their life. I’ve seen some things former students have posted, and I don’t mind reaching out to them privately to make sure they’re alright, to be one more adult that cares.”
Contrary to urban legend that states how teachers detest seeing their students in public, Highlan adores bumping into her students. Valparaiso’s bustling downtown scene gives her plenty of opportunities.
“I really care about what they have going on,” Highlan said. “That’s one of my favorite things about teaching and living in this community. I love seeing my students all grown up and hearing about the awesome things they’re doing. My first students are now turning 30 and having babies and it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness! Where did the time go?’ Some of my former students are even my friends now.”
In Highlan’s mind, another great thing about our region is the accessibility to the steel mills.
“My husband is a supervisor out at the mill, and I’m thankful that we also live close to industries like that,” Highlan said. “They provide so many jobs, and I think sometimes those types of jobs get overlooked. But they’re so important.”
Highlan’s ties to that industry give her another perspective about teaching.
“So many times, kids that are coming out of high school go, ‘Ugh, I’m going to work at the mill, what a bad job,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s an excellent job!’” Highlan said. “Sometimes [my husband’s] employees look down on themselves for working at the mill and he tries to build them up and remind them, ‘Hey, this is a great job! Don’t ever feel like it’s not a worthy job. You are what’s keeping our economy going.’ It’s just a good reminder for the education world that we need all kinds of people to contribute to society.”