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Carl Sandburg teacher mixes personal life into teaching to keep kids engaged

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FREEPORT (WREX) — Mike Huenefeld is well along his journey as an educator.

He's five years into his stint at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Freeport, the sixth school he has worked at since starting his teaching career.

"I've taught in Leland, Illinois. Ohio, Illinois. Oregon, Forreston, Orangeville and now here," Huenefeld said.

Mr. Huenefeld learned a lot in his stops before becoming a language arts and social studies teacher with Carl Sandburg.

One of most important being his students see him as a real person, not just a teacher.

"Whether the kids want to admit it or not, they do look up to you as an adult, as an authority figure and as someone who's important in their lives," Huenefeld said.

"If they can also see you as somebody they can talk to and you can share things about your personal life and not hide things away from them, then they become more interested."

As the class is breaking down the stories they read on a daily basis, Mr Huenefeld ties tales of his own life into the lesson plan to make things more relatable.

It not only helps the kids understand the material, but keeps them engaged and ready to hear more.

"To bring stories from my real life into the things we are teaching are probably the ways I pull kids in the fastest and keep them interested because they don't know when the next story is going to come," Huenefeld said.

The kids aren't the only ones hanging on to Mr. Huenefeld's words.

Lannie Lehman, a special education teacher at Carl Sandburg, worked with Huenefeld when he first arrived at the school and is now back in his classroom quite frequently this year.

"Being a special ed teacher, I need to make accommodations for my students and he gets me the materials in plenty of time to be able to do that," Lehman said.

His organizational skills are just one reason Lehman nominated Mr. Huenefeld for Teacher of the Week.

She also admires the relationship he builds with his kids to efficiently manage his classroom.

"He sets high expectations for the kids. He's firm when he needs to be but there's lots of laughter, there's a good report between the kids and himself," Lehman said.

It is a balancing act for Mr Huenefeld finding the right mix of teacher and storyteller.

While it does depend on the group of kids he has each year, the one constant is emphasizing personal ideals as they continue to grow and mature.

"Not everything I teach is necessarily curriculum based. I like to teach you a lot of things that are going to help you become and adult in society," Huenefeld said.

"Those little things about how to behave around other people, how to treat other people that you don't necessarily stop and teach a lesson on."

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Evan Leake

Evan Leake anchors for 13 News Today and 13 News at Noon. Evan grew up in Darien, Illinois, a south-west suburb of Chicago. He came to WREX in 2017 and worked his way to the anchor desk in May of 2019. He coordinates both the Teacher of the Week and Inspiring 815 series for 13 News. You can connect with Evan at or Evan Leake on Facebook.

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