By Ayse Eldes, Editor-in-Chief
Principal Michelle Dowling attributes her emphasis on student prioritization to her extensive classroom experience. She not only was a department head at Hersey High School and associate principal later at Prospect, but was a social science teacher at Buffalo Grove High School for 18 years. However, beginning her teaching career was not easy. Dowling had just finished student teaching at Buffalo Grove High School in 1984 when Arlington High School closed. Many told her she would not be able to find employment in the district.
“I remember my last day of student teaching, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I love this. I know that this is what I want to do; I’m never going to find a job,’” Dowling said.
The following fall, she found herself hired as the only female member of the all-male social science and foreign language department at Buffalo Grove High School.
“I was thrilled, and that’s where it all started,” Dowling said.
Hersey social science teacher Tina Athanasopoulos, who has worked with Dowling since their time in the same department at Hersey, sees Dowling’s role in the district as one of female leadership. When at Hersey, Dowling became a close mentor after Athanasopoulos got married. As a working mother, Dowling dissolved any reservations Athanasopoulos had about starting a family and still advancing her career.
“She was the leader that she could have always been. And then she is an advocate for women,” Athanasopoulos said. “So when I see her, it’s nice to see someone who stayed true to who they are and stayed true to what they’re passionate about: education and learning. And [she] is proud of her school, staff, teachers and students.”
When characterizing Dowling’s leadership during her 34 years in the district, Athanasopoulos believes that Dowling is a reserved person at first, and utilizes one-on-one conversation to encourage those around her. At the time they first met, Dowling had young children and encouraged Athanasopoulos to keep pursuing education, even if she planned on having kids.
“She, for me, gave really nice guidance [and] gave me really nice advice. And not just professionally but as a woman,” Athanasopoulos said. “She’s a woman, she’s raised kids, she’s had profession, and she’s a leader in the field. … What I loved … were our conversations on the side. That’s where I really learned a lot from her. She’d never get in front of a group of teachers and say, “I’m a mother and I can do this,” but [instead] she would do that on the side. “She is an advocate for women and women in leadership positions. When I think of Michelle Dowling, that’s what I think of.”
Prospect science teacher Katie Page has observed Dowling’s leadership for female students through the school’s Women in STEM (WiSTEM) club. Especially when the program launched its independent research program three years ago and began to expand into bringing guest speakers to Prospect, Page notes that Dowling was in full support. This included full monetary assistance to the program.
“It really makes what I’m doing for these kids and what these kids are getting to experience — it makes me feel validated, and it allows [students] to participate in something unique that they wouldn’t otherwise get,” Page said. “Not every building has something like that. I think it really raises the level of the type of experiences that are going on in this building.”
To have an experienced female leader of the school is especially meaningful to Page, who, like Dowling, started her career as the only female in her workplace when she started out in physics. Page highlighted that Dowling always emails her asking if there is anything she can do to help with her program.
“I feel like she’s more like a colleague sometimes rather than boss and employee, which to me I think is fantastic because I feel like she’s in it just like we’re in it,” Page said. “It’s not just directives coming down; she’s right there next to you, wanting to know what’s going on in the classroom.”
As one of the longest working administrators in District 214, Dowling has also become a resource at the District level. She explained how many administrators consult her on the success and evaluation of previous practices or programs in the district, adopting the role of a historian of the district.
One of these people is John Hersey High School Principal Gordon Sisson. Sisson, who started at Hersey in 2012, came from an administrative position in a Wisconsin high school. As a previous district outsider, he explained Dowling’s crucial role as being a resource to him throughout his principalship.
“I think she is a voice to be respected at the district level because of her experience as a division leader and instructor. I think her council is always well regarded,” Sisson said. “Her wisdom all thinks [District] 214 is something that is not easily replaced. She a person who I trust always to give great feedback and thoughts from whenever I have a problem. … Certainly I look at Michelle quite a bit when I look at what I do and how I do it at Hersey and set the foundation of a lot of our instructional practices, especially in the AP world through her division head work.”
Dowling acknowledges conscious sacrifices she has made for her career, but her own kids have admired her for becoming the leader she is.
“My kids really like that; they think I’m a role model, and they appreciate me more. I think they appreciate the things I do for them more because they know it goes beyond what I’m already doing,” Dowling said.
Dowling explained that she was in a financial situation at the beginning of her career where she did not have to work, but she chose to do so. She believes that the decision has made her a better professional and mother.
“[My kids] knew there was going to be some sacrifices. They see that you can dream things and do them and aspire, so that was the message, and it depends on the individual,” Dowling said. “You have to figure out who you are because when you’re the best you, you’re the best in every arena.”
Ultimately, this commitment is what led her to becoming principal at Prospect in 2012, when her predecessor D214 Associate Superintendent for Human Resources Kurt Laakso resigned.
After their first year of working together in 2007, both Dowling and Laakso realized the school lacked a freshmen induction program. Together they developed the Leading Incoming Knights (LINK) program that still continues today, providing a program for senior leaders to guide freshmen into the high school environment.
“She is very student focused – it’s in her blood,” Laakso said. “I’ve never had a conversation with her regarding [the] school [when she] didn’t put students first. So we were very proud of that initiative, and that’s something that she and I embraced from the very start of the concept. Not only philosophically and professionally but also emotionally, we just both felt that this was something that would define the culture of Prospect.”
As members of the superintendent’s leadership team, Laakso and Dowling still worked together frequently with other school principals and district administrators. Laakso notes Dowling’s strength in communicating and formulating strong suggestions during their work together.
“In conversations that have reached from the personal to the professional to the political to the cultural, she’s always willing to give an honest perspective and speak candidly about what she’s perceiving, to ask people in a very genuine and humble way what they know and what they think because she’s extremely curious as a human being and interested in other people’s perspectives and learning from them,” Laakso said. “She’s demonstrated, in that sense and other ways, this real commitment to lifelong learning which I think is so important for a school leader to exhibit.”