WEST ENGLEWOOD — Even though she's attained one of education's top honors by being named a 2013 Golden Apple Award winner, science teacher Elizabeth Copper said she still has more to accomplish as a teacher.
"I really love being a teacher. Like any profession it has its ups and downs, but overall I love what I do," said the 61-year-old widow, mother and grandmother who teaches environmental science at Lindblom Math & Science Academy High School. "Winning a Golden Apple Award was the pinnacle of my career, but is by no means the end for me."
Becoming a teacher was not Copper's first career goal. She aspired to be a doctor and even completed a year of training at the former Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine in Hyde Park.
"One day [in 1976] I went to visit one of my former teachers at [the former] St. Thomas the Apostle High School, and she told me to follow her to the office," recalled Copper, who lives in Calumet Heights. "When we got there she told the principal that she was retiring and I was her replacement."
Though she was blindsided, Copper took on the challenge of teaching, and has been doing so now for 20 years, including the last three at Lindblom. During her tenure she has taught at plenty of neighborhood high schools including Robeson, Harper and Hirsch.
"This is the third high school in Englewood I have worked at and it will probably be my last," she said. "I plan to retire from Lindblom, but that won't be anytime soon."
Copper earned a bachelor's in biology from the former Mundelein College and a master's in public health and higher education from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
When she is not at Lindblom she teaches environmental science part time at the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University's Bronzeville campus, where she has worked for the last nine years.
Working in what Chicago police have described as one of the city's most violent neighborhoods is no easy task, but it's a challenge Copper welcomes.
"I do not worry about the dangers that exist in Englewood because I know there is nothing I can do about it except be careful and stay faithful," said Copper, who is Catholic. "There have been times when I left school and the area was swarming with cops. When that happens, I call my family to let them know what is going on, and that I am safe."
Her boss, Lindblom Principal Alan Mather, was glad to see Copper win the Golden Apple Award earlier this month.
"Ms. Copper winning a Golden Apple brings recognition to what we do here at Lindblom," Mather said. "And the amount of hard work she puts in with kids is unparalleled."
The same week she won the award Copper headed Downstate to Champaign with three Lindblom students who participated in the annual Illinois Science Fair. It is something Copper said she enjoys doing outside the classroom.
"I don't just teach science. I am also involved in programs here at Lindblom like the Go Green Club, where students learn about gardening and recycling," added Copper.
Former students, who Copper said contact her through social media like Facebook, keep her abreast of what they are doing. She said her students have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers and police officers.
"I am proud of all my students for any achievement they reach. Since Lindblom is a selective-enrollment school, students come from all over the city, and even though they have fewer social problems than some kids attending neighborhood schools, they have issues too," she said.
Some kids, she said, are homeless or leave home hungry.
Savon Smith, a 16-year-old freshman at Lindblom, recently died from meningitis, and while Copper said he was not one of her students, she did recall meeting him.
"I saw him in the hallway earlier this year upset because he had lost his bus card and did not know how he would get home. I gave him my bus card and told him to please return it tomorrow," Copper recalled. "Well, after he left, it dawned on me that I did not know his name, so I didn't know how to find him to get my card back. But the next day, he found me and gave me my bus card back."