Elmhurst College alumna Jessica Vaillancourt recently was named Illinois Outstanding Young Teacher of the Year by the Illinois Communication and Theatre Association, the state’s largest professional organization for theater, speech, debate and communications teachers.
Vaillancourt, 30, was recognized for rescuing and reviving Elgin High School’s performing arts program, which had lost steam over the years and was essentially nonexistent when she started teaching drama and speech at the school in 2011.
“The students were hungry for it,” said Vaillancourt, who earned a bachelor’s degree in theater design, lighting and stage management from Elmhurst in 2007, then received her teaching certificate in 2010. “They just needed someone to cheer them on, to invest in them and make it interesting and fun.”
During her first year, Vaillancourt led a small cast of students to perform A Raisin in the Sun, a play she first encountered at Elmhurst. The play tells the story of a black family’s struggle to gain acceptance in an all-white neighborhood.
“I loved being involved in that show at Elmhurst, and it was wonderful to share that with my students,” Vaillancourt said. “I had amazing professors who kept challenging me to grow, and I do that with my students.”
Since that first year, the high school’s performing arts program has grown to more than 80 students. Vaillancourt also recently coached a speech student to the state competition sectional—something that hadn’t happened since 1974.
Vaillancourt fondly remembers how Elmhurst theater professors encouraged students to get fully involved in productions. For her, that meant getting a job with a “real” theater company as her summer independent study project.
Vaillancourt found that job at a theater company in Colorado, which is where she met her husband, Anthony Zoubek—a fellow Elmhurst College graduate who had earned a master’s degree in English in 2010.
Zoubek himself won the Illinois Outstanding Young Teacher of the Year Award in 2011, for rebuilding the speech program at Bartlett High School, where he also teaches English.
Vaillancourt and Zoubek live in Elgin.