Through more than 20 years of experience in Portage Schools, Vanessa Ellis has learned a lot about what it means to be a substitute teacher. Sure, they step in and cover for the usual teachers and help carry on lessons in their absence, but that’s just the surface.
“What I enjoy most is that I can really touch a lot of children’s lives,” Ellis said. “There are just so many needs out there. It could be someone who just needs a hug for the day or some emotional support because of a rough family life.”
She even takes time outside of the workday to support students’ extracurricular efforts.
“I like going out to support them at band concerts, plays, and athletics,” she said. “You know, a lot of families and single parents just can’t make it out. I think it’s important to have a strong adult who’s visible and there for them.”
Ellis was a Navy baby, born in Virginia Beach, Virginia, but has lived in Portage since she was 6. She never originally planned to get into education. She started her career as a retail manager, but the rigorous travel schedule and long hours made her pursue other options once she had kids.
“I saw an article in the newspaper back then that there was a sub shortage here in Portage,” Ellis said. She went to the administration building to apply and that began her new career.
Ellis spent her first decade and a half substitute teaching for elementary and middle school classes. At one point, she met Mary Tracy-MacAulay, who served as assistant superintendent in Portage at the time, and is now the superintendent for Hanover Community Schools.
“It originally felt like a part-time mom job but she put so much merit in my abilities and gave me extra opportunities to fill in for maternity leaves,” Ellis said. “Those opportunities she gave me really solidified that this is where I needed to be.”
Now, Ellis works in high school classrooms, too, and serves as that extra shoulder for students to lean on in school and in life.
“Over the last 10 years, it’s become even more important,” she said. “You’ve got to build relationships. I stayed after school the other day because one girl asked me to talk. It was extra time, but I say, you need to have the heart to stay until 3 o’clock if that’s what you need to do.”
Outside of the classroom, Ellis is big on following Chicago sports. Many of her family vacations are planned around Blackhawks and Sox games. She also loves to stay involved in the Portage community.
“It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that it’s the largest city in Porter County,” she said. “You can go to the homecoming parade or Fourth of July parade and still know everyone. I’m very passionate that Portage still feels like a small town!”