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Nicole Kroepel of Poplar Grove has been teaching for 20 years, with the past 15 as an English teacher at Belvidere North High School. Kroepel was immediately struck, yet felt validated in her efforts to continue “learning, teaching and growing, not only for students, but also myself” when she heard a speaker ask, ““Are you in your 20th year of teaching, or have you taught year one 20 times.” Her methods have certainly changed over 20 years. For example, after learning that people can listen and pay attention for only about 15 minutes, she stopped long lectures and created mini lessons focused on skills. Students then apply these skills to achieve mastery. She’s working on proficiency-based grading, presenting several ways for students be assessed on their knowledge. “It gives me an excellent way to know where each student is … beyond that, it is a way to build relationships with students that are personal that I wouldn’t have been able to build as well just in classroom interaction.” Kroepel wants students to feel safe in her room. Safe to express themselves, to make mistakes and to take risks. A former student wrote, “A true educator doesn’t just reiterate lesson plans, teach poetry analysis or how to properly use a comma. A true educator provides their students with more than what is in the curriculum for the year. A true educator gives their students life skills, love and support that is needed to grow and develop as a human being.” He says that because of the education and support she provided, he is pursuing dual graduate degrees in law and medicine. Don’t think she doesn’t hold students to high standards, though. Principal Jim Friesema remarked that in 2020, Kroepel created the curriculum for AP Seminar, which had never before been offered in the district. “Thanks to her strong instructional practices … and willingness to go above and beyond … her students achieved an 83% pass rate on AP exams. She’s also head coach for the school debate team, which won the 2019 IHSA State Championship, the only team outside the Chicago suburbs to win it in the last 20 years”! David Kozlov, a team member’s parent, nominated her, writing, “Mrs. Kroepel's enthusiasm for and mastery of the subject of DEBATE was evident from the first day we met. She serves as mentor and third parent to all her students and team members. She is inspirational to everyone she works with and is an irreplaceable asset to the institution.” His son concurred, sharing in a recommendation letter that because of her, he has grown, not just as a student or a kid on the debate team, but as a person. He went being bored in school to being engaged in class and involved in debate. In fact, he is “ranked number one for Public Forum debate in Illinois, was a quarterfinalist at IHSA last year and has qualified for nationals twice in a row.” “Mrs. Kroepel has laid the foundation for me to be self-motivated, successful and courageous enough to unapologetically be myself. She has taught me that it’s okay to mess up because it gives me the chance to improve. And she has taught me to be a leader and stand up for what I think is right. Her constant support and guidance have allowed her to touch the lives of many and create unfathomable success. In a world where it seems like so many things are falling apart, it is people like Mrs. Kroepel who give me hope for the future.”