Math Teacher Mrs. Toni Dactilidis, who recently completed her 12th year at Fenwick, is entering her 23rd year as an educator.
What is your educational background?
TD: I was educated in the City of Steel and Stone: Joliet, Illinois. From preschool at the Little Red Schoolhouse to my Master’s Degree at the University of St. Francis, I feel so fortunate that I grew up in a diverse city with valuable lessons surrounding me at every turn. I am reminded of a beautiful quote from the Greek philosopher Diogenes that I saw every day in high school proudly displayed in the building, ‘the foundation of every state is the education of its youth.’ I love my hometown and, as I grow older, I search for ways to give back to show appreciation for all the education I received in that city. I relish all the lessons learned – from sports to dance, music to the Greek language – my education began at a very young age thanks to my mother, Mary Ann, and all the resources she found for me in Joliet.
If you have never visited Joliet, please do! My high school alma mater, Joliet Central, is one of the most beautiful schools I have ever seen – Forever the Steelmen! I tell my students that the reason I teach high school students is because I loved my high school experience so much. Thank you to all my teachers, both in the classroom and beyond, in Joliet throughout the years!
What did you do prior to becoming a teacher at Fenwick?
TD: I will begin my 23rd year of teaching in August. Next month will definitely look different than other school year beginnings; but, I am excited to connect with a new group of Friars. I started teaching young people right out of college. I have taught students from the grade school level up to the college level for the past 22 years at Gompers Junior High School to Joliet Junior College. I completed my student teaching at Joliet Catholic Academy, where I truly witnessed the power of a Catholic high school education for young people. Prior to Fenwick, I taught at Rich Central High School [Olympia Fields, IL], where I really fell in love with teaching high school students. As a novice teacher, I was surrounded by amazing mentors who supported and guided me. My students there were wonderful, strong, smart young people that worked hard toward all their goals. I loved my time at Rich Central. But my experience at JCA inspired me to teach at a Catholic institution one day; luckily, I found Fenwick in 2008 in search of an AP Statistics teacher and a crew moderator for theater productions, all of which, I had experience with at Rich Central. Needless to say, the stars aligned for me perfectly.
As I reflect back on my 22 years in education, I think about all the wonderful mentors from whom I have learned. Anna White, the Gompers principal, comes to mind. She taught me so many great lessons on being an effective educator. She created a school climate where students felt loved and had a safe environment to learn. Ms. White showed me daily that loving your students must still involve having good structure and discipline – a priceless lesson indeed! I thoroughly believe love is the foundation of every classroom where learning and supporting each other will then fill the room. From the very beginning of the year, I show my students that I love and care for them as people with hopes, desires, dreams and ambitions. I start the year with a project no matter what the class is and incorporate our mathematical concepts into the project. My students feel loved and appreciated right from the onset because I create a supportive environment where we all feel comfortable to learn together. The ‘T-Shirt’ project is one of my favorites – come by my room during the year; I love to hang the “T-Shirts” up so we are reminded each day of the strong community we have together.
What are you currently reading for enjoyment?
TD: Shout out to my book club – we just finished reading and then discussing Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips: a beautifully written book with themes and experiences that speak to all of us in America even though the book’s setting is the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. I have wonderful colleagues at Fenwick that are dear friends and we share a passion for reading and continuing to learn and grow in all we do. We love to gather as well: community!
I am currently reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning; I enjoy reading about history, and this book is challenging me to think so very differently from the historical stories I usually read. Next on my list is Talking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell; this has been on my reading list since Dr. Tracy Gau recommended it to me in January. Gladwell’s books have always been favorites of mine.
What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?
TD: I have so many interests and now [summer] is the time when I can really enjoy so many of them. I love being outside all year round but the summertime allows me to do that more than ever. In the summer, one will usually find me around the yard playing in the dirt. I have a big garden filled with delicious vegetables – lettuce, spinach, onions, beets, herbs, peas and beans are some of the veggies that I have enjoyed up to this point in the summer. My zucchini are close to harvest and then cucumbers will be coming in. I cannot wait for the peppers and tomatoes to start exploding as well! My husband and I start everything from seed and it is truly a labor of love to tend to a thriving garden. Each year, I become more enamored with my perennial flowers – I love the ability to transplant them and separate them to expand my garden or share with family and friends. I relish the quiet time in my veggie or flower garden in the morning as the warmth of the summer sun rises over me. It is precious quiet time that is so appreciated after a long school year. It is a time to rejuvenate mind, body and spirit.
Besides my yard, another favorite location of mine is Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. I enjoy hiking, biking and cross country skiing through the preserve, which is a short walk from my backyard – nature at your doorstep!
My family jokes that I sponsor ‘Camp Toni’ at my house as well during the summer. I teach my youngest family members how to swim, explore nature and be active just as kids are meant to be! These are some of my favorite summertime endeavors. Time is the most meaningful thing we can give one another. I love that I am able to spend so much time with them during the summer.
Music and theater remain big passions of mine since my youth. I have played the bassoon with many groups throughout the years. My summers are usually filled with playing in my community band at various locations around the south suburbs; I definitely miss the opportunity to share music with people as summer fests and outdoor concerts are cancelled this summer. I am practicing my bassoon, so I’ll be ready when the band strikes up again. My theater passion lately is fulfilled with BFG [Blackfriars Guild] at Fenwick and going to see a variety of shows done at every level. I do miss performing on stage. Class of 2019 graduate Spencer Gallagher gave me the opportunity to grace the Fenwick stage in Banua 2019 when he wrote a skit where the teachers portrayed the students in The Reversal – so much fun!
Then there is traveling of course – anything from a good ole camping trip in Wisconsin to exploring southern France on a Dominican Retreat, I am very thankful for all the beautiful places I have been able to visit. I was fortunate enough to join Mr. Roger Finnell on two of his London trips; one of them being his final one in 2017.
Finally, being with family and friends is a highlight for me always – no matter what the reason for gathering. It definitely has not been the same these past three months but we have been creative with our get-togethers while trying to maintain social distancing for everyone’s safety.
To what teams and/or clubs did you belong as a student?
TD: As I said earlier, I loved my high school experience. I was able to enjoy so many of my passions at Joliet Central that were cultivated much earlier thanks to my mom. She exposed me to music, sports, dance and theater. She drove me from a softball practice to a dance rehearsal to a saxophone lesson maybe all in the same evening! I played softball, volleyball and basketball at Joliet Central and softball all summer long with the Joliet Softball Association. I learned not only softball skills from dedicated coaches but wonderful life lessons about teamwork, good sportsmanship and focusing on goals. Mrs. Jennifer Christansen was just one of those great educators who dedicated so much time and effort to young people at Joliet Central – a true role model! I continued my love for sports at the University of St. Francis through the intramurals program under the direction of Tony Delgado and Pat Sullivan. Through those fine gentlemen, I witnessed that no matter how successful one becomes, the most important thing is to remain humble and appreciate all the people around you that guide and support you each day.
I was reminded of that through Andy Arellano’s goodbye letter to us this spring upon his retirement. Andy is hands down one of the most successful teachers ever to walk the halls of Fenwick High School; he inspires not only his students but his colleagues to reach higher levels in all they do in the classroom and in life. One of Andy’s messages to us had this theme of no one alone can accomplish great things, ‘I truly believe that no one accomplishes things single handedly; accomplishments are achieved because of the help that one receives along the way.’ I hope I can enjoy a White Sox game with Andy in the future. So yes, I loved playing various sports when I was a student and I still am active to this day; however, the life lessons that I was taught from coaches guide me through my journey daily.
Sports was only one of my passions, music has been a very big part of my life since an early age, too. At Joliet Central, I played tenor saxophone with the JT Big Band and Marching Band, I played the bass clarinet and bassoon with the Symphonic Band. Various band trips to colleges and conventions around the nation were so much fun, and we really enjoyed sharing our music and winning contests. The history of school band programs in Joliet dates back to 1912 – it is truly a history of music excellence that continues to this day. Throughout college and beyond, I continued playing my instruments in various musical groups and even joined several choirs. Mr. Ted Lega at Joliet Central instilled in me that every musician’s goal should be making beautiful music and being able to reach people and inspire others with that music.
Finally, there was Speech and Theater. I participated in the Speech Team where I competed in Prose and Verse readings; I traveled to the state competition during my senior year with the Contest Play Daughters, and I worked on many theater productions. The Spring Musicals were always a favorite of mine because they combined music, dance and acting. Mr. Mike Zigrossi set the stage for me to continue this once I became a teacher. His dedication and passion for the arts at Joliet Central sparked such an excitement in me, that I knew I would continue this and pass that feeling along to others! Once I started college, I was a founding member of a theater group – The Sometimes Thespians. I performed in countless shows there and I am thankful that, as a math major, I was able to have an outlet for my love of performing and working on productions.
Being in team sports, band and theater teaches you about being a part of a group bigger than yourself. You are working toward a common goal and the life lessons are so abundant: discipline, teamwork, responsibility, endurance, time-management, personal growth, leadership and sportsmanship just to name a few.
Which clubs/sports/activities do you run at Fenwick?
TD: Since my first year at Fenwick in 2008, I have been the Blackfriars Guild Crew moderator. Working with the talented students to build and design the sets has been a highlight of my Fenwick career. I truly enjoy the hard work and dedication it takes behind the scenes to put on a BFG production. Our theater technology at Fenwick has grown with the help of wonderful donors to update the auditorium’s sound and lighting systems. Experienced theater tech consultants have joined us to teach our students all the nuances that go into sound and lighting design with this new equipment. I also directed Banua skits from 2010 to 2019. The talent of Fenwick students behind the scenes and on stage is so abundant; it is truly an honor to see them in action!
I thoroughly enjoy working with not only the students but my amazing colleagues who put so much creativity and dedication into every production as well. I have worked on 34 BFG productions with Mr. Roger Finnell. The countless hours we have spent together in the auditorium are so priceless to me. As the producer and director of well over 100 shows at Fenwick, Roger has given his all to this program. After a day of teaching and then Math Team practice, Roger would head to the auditorium for rehearsals. Roger’s dedication to the BFG program is absolutely the reason it has put on over 50 fall plays, over 50 Banuas and over 50 spring musicals. He has kept that program alive and thriving for so many years.
It has been a total thrill and amazing learning experience for me to work with so many artistic BFG directors during these past 12 years including Roger, John Schoeph, Sue Senese, John Paulett, Melanie Lamoureux, Peter Bromann, Caleb Faille and Peter Durkin. In constructing all the sets, I have learned so much from Denis McCauley, who truly teaches Fenwick students practical life lessons and so much more! Finally, Dan Conlin and Kevin Roche joined BFG last school year and have been exciting additions to the program. I look forward to many more productions with the BFG team!
If only there was more time in the day, I would love to coach softball and be a part of the music program at Fenwick as well!
What quality/characteristic marks a Fenwick student?
TD: I like to write, but I had a hard time with answering this question. For the past few years, I have had the privilege of teaching only upperclassmen at Fenwick. So the students that walk into my classroom have had so much love and encouragement from their families, so much guidance and direction from their teachers and so much support and valuable lessons from their coaches and mentors in their 11 plus years of schooling. Some of the students have already attended a Kairos retreat when I first meet them too. So, did they enter 505 Washington Blvd. with a profound belief in God or was that nurtured at Fenwick? Did they always possess a dedicated work ethic or was that cultivated at Fenwick? Did my students always focus on helping others or did that become a mission of theirs at Fenwick? Were my students born with a deep passion of learning and studying or was that nourished at Fenwick?
My students’ commitment to better their lives and their communities is always evident; I am inspired by the work they do. Our world needs logical thinkers and thoughtful problem-solvers to help with the issues facing our nation and abroad. Fenwick students bring both an analytical and empathetic approach to solving an issue; their analysis always keeps the welfare of others in mind. Fenwick students are truly good people – it is that simple. They may fall once in a while or make bad decisions – don’t we all? However, they help each other get back up and they learn from mistakes. Making mistakes is a big part of the learning process; I try to always remember that. Our students are humble, talented, kind and truly beautiful from the inside out. I am honored to be a part of my students’ high school careers because [of] what they bring to my classroom and, in turn, my life.
When did you decide to become a teacher, and why did you choose this field?
TD: As I have written here, I have been inspired by so many educators throughout my life that I think it was just meant to be. It was a calling. In the fall of 1994 when I started my college career at St. Francis, I was asked to be a tutor in the math center; I was called to help others. As an outgoing freshman with a love for math, I agreed. By helping others in the math center, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to explain a concept to my peers in a different way compared to the math professors and seeing that understanding in their eyes – wow – what a powerful experience. I went from an actuarial/computer science major to a math major to focus on education.
What personal strengths do you find especially helpful in your teaching?
TD: Walking into a classroom at the beginning of the school year, I still have the same excitement and butterflies just as I did over two decades ago. This allows me to bring my students an enthusiasm for not just the subject matter but for living life with joy and gratitude each day. Therefore, my positive, endless energy is a personal strength. My goal is to ignite that in my students too. The light we all carry throughout this world must shine brighter than ever before; honesty, thoughtfulness, compassion, logic, character and love must guide us in all we do. And humor, definitely some fun must be had – I am a true believer that life should be enjoyed. Homecoming week especially – I do teach high school students after all!
What are your favorite classes to teach?
TD: I really do enjoy teaching students math – period. I have so much fun in class every day, and I hope my students do too! But if I were to pick a favorite, it would be Statistics. From my readings by Karl Pearson, he states that Florence Nightingale believed ‘. . . to understand God’s thoughts we must study statistics, for these are the measure of his purpose.’ Thus, Nightingale believed the study of statistics was a religious duty. Dare I say that it should be a required course at Fenwick High School? I thoroughly enjoy teaching the one semester Statistics course as well as Advanced Placement Statistics here at Fenwick.
I challenge my students to understand the formulas behind the numbers and to be fluent in terminology. It is a must to be familiar with statistical software programs as well. Statistics touches almost every area of study and every field. It benefits Fenwick students tremendously if they see this subject matter prior to college.
I love to teach statistics for so many reasons. One of which is data is literally always available and there is an interesting story out there behind the data. We start the year by learning about each other – collecting data on everyone in the class. In AP Stats, it is referred to as the ‘T-Shirt’ project that I mentioned earlier. I have been known to host the Annual Dactistic Awards Ceremony at the end of the year in some stats classes as well. I highlight my students achievements and how meaningful their impact on the class was throughout the year. My students awarded me an honorary Dactistic in 2015; I was thrilled to say the least!
What is the greatest success you have had in teaching?
TD: I think after my 40th year of teaching, I will be ready to put out my greatest hits album. For now, I am happy to know that students enjoy learning math and see the power that it holds after being in my classroom. Whether I be thanked in person or in writing that I made math a subject that they like, I am humbled by their gratitude. I give my students 100% and when that energy, happiness and appreciation are returned, that is true success in life. My former Fenwick students who return to not only visit me, but to speak to my current students about college, their studies in math and statistics and their careers in those fields bring me so much delight.
With that said, thanks to the best department at Fenwick High School, under the leadership of Mr. Roger Finnell, the greatest journey professionally is being a part of the math department that challenges each other, supports each other and truly loves each other.
What challenges face students today?
TD: The inability to dedicate time on our passions is a challenge we face at any age, but Fenwick students must recognize it now more than ever. We are asked to do so much in life with family, school and work. This is not always a bad thing – but we must make sure we are doing things that bring us joy to always maintain balance. We are given so many distractions on top of that each and every day. We must take the time to do what makes us not only happy but truly healthy – in mind, body and spirit. I think students distract themselves with things that give them instant gratification but not true happiness. Nurture yourself with what brings you joy and, in turn, those around you will be inspired to find their joy. Be present in these tasks that you undertake to nourish your whole being and enjoy the journey each day. It should be a beautiful one indeed.