Terrific Teacher: Mark Vondracek

Teacher by day, secret agent by night. At least that’s what some of his students think.

Because he requires little sleep, the Physics and AP Physics teacher has been known to review his students’ research drafts and respond to their emails at 1, 2 and 3 a.m.

“He makes himself more available than any teacher I’ve ever met—the kids have five different ways of contacting him and he returns phone and email messages almost immediately,” says Julie Chernoff, parent of two ETHS students. And, “the kids worship him,” she adds.

Mark’s love of education fills his classroom, exciting his students (about physics, no less), and also extends beyond the ETHS walls. He serves on the District 50 school board in Gurnee, where his two children go to school—an unusual post for a working (round-the-clock) teacher.

“If I can get the kids curious—enough that they talk about physics at the dinner table, or in the car, from something they see in the world, then I know they’re hooked,” says Mark, who has been teaching at ETHS for 12 years and was recently a finalist for a Golden Apple.

The Streamwood native’s main goal is to teach his students to question things and to think like scientists, which will help them regardless of what field they end up in. To get high schoolers thinking about the science that’s driving the modern economy, he runs his class according to the Socratic Method, and often lets the kids go off on tangents so they stay engaged. “I want the kids to drive where the class goes,” he says.

Mark’s love of teaching began when he worked as a teaching assistant while earning his Ph.D. at University of Illinois. “It was a blast,” he recalls, and he didn’t envy the professors who were focusing on research.

And after teaching in the Chicago Public Schools for a few years, “I can appreciate the resources we have here in Evanston,” he says. He puts his experience to work on the District 50 school board, tackling the challenge of managing a shrinking budget in a district that serves 7,000 kids.

His own kids are a good indicator of Gurnee’s progress. “If it’s good for them, hopefully it’s good for everyone,” he says.