In February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic closed classroom doors in the U.S., Tom Rooney, a history and economics expert – but not an English teacher as he would point out – asked a writing teacher colleague to assist him in editing down two responses on his application to become a 2020 James Madison Fellow.
The two teachers didn’t share the same planning period, but Rooney’s 9th hour AP U.S. History class was with the same students as his colleague’s AP English class.
The English teacher came to assist during Rooney’s History class, but instead of doing so quietly at the back of the room, he turned the activity into a spur-of-the-moment life lesson for the students. Editing quickly became a group project for the class. The students and teachers took about 20 minutes of class time to edit the responses, and worked together to help share Rooney’s story with the judges at the James Madison Foundation.
Rooney says this was a lesson for he and students alike, showing them the importance of leaning into vulnerabilities in the process of finding the right solutions, and that it’s OK to ask for help.
Fast forward two months to April, and the world looked completely different. Rooney was teaching the same group of students, but this time over a video call from his home in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. During class, a notification appeared in his email that he couldn’t wait to open: “Congratulations!,” it read. “You’ve been awarded a James Madison Fellowship!”
It was a full circle moment: he was able to first share the good news with the same students who helped him craft the responses that led to his award.
The prestigious fellowship provides $24,000 grants to individuals desiring to become outstanding teachers of the American Constitution at the secondary school level. As an endorsed economics teacher and self-described “Constitution nerd,” Rooney was the perfect candidate.
“I’m just absolutely thrilled to have the chance to focus on the Constitution,” he said. “I’ve been a ‘Constitution nerd’ since having to take the Constitution test in junior high, and the commonality of all my history studies in college was on the Constitution.”
As an undergrad, he took courses on Constitutional law and the American Founding from 1789-1815 and now with this new honor, Rooney will be pursuing a master’s degree in history with a focus on the founding documents at Loyola University.
So grateful to be a 2020 James Madison Fellow!! I was teaching an online lesson for my APUSH students when I found out, so they got to share the news (and my excitement!). As a constitution nerd for over 30 years, I’ll be passing along so much more to students. @JamesMadisonFdn pic.twitter.com/rbOsnb9N6a
— Tom Rooney (@econAPUSH212) April 10, 2020
Bringing Economics to Life
Early in his career, Rooney was eager to take on new challenges and was dedicated to his students, but in 1997, the first-year economics teacher was struggling to connect new ideas and lessons with his students.
“I discovered pretty quickly that I needed help,” he said. “My kids didn’t get it, they didn’t think it was interesting … My first year of teaching econ was kind of a train wreck.”
As a historian and lover of economics, he was thrilled when he discovered a Foundation for Teaching Economics (FTE) brochure promoting a summer conference on how to teach economics through games, simulations and activities in his faculty mailbox at school.
Without hesitation, he signed up for an FTE teacher program in Madison, Wisconsin, and his classroom model changed forever.
FTE put life in my economics class. The change in the way I taught economics was huge.” – Tom Rooney, FTE Mentor Teacher
“FTE put life in my economics class,” Rooney said. “The change in the way I taught economics was huge.”
While FTE brought the “life,” Rooney definitely brings the passion. To anyone he meets, it is apparent that his excitement and devotion for teaching overflows, and fittingly, one of the fellowship application questions asked: “what keeps you teaching?”
“The thing that drives me as a teacher is that there is nothing like the ‘lightbulb’ moment, when you can see it click on for a kid,” he shared. “When you can see the understanding actually develop and see the excitement that shows up on a kid’s face when they get something for the first time – it doesn’t happen every day, but it is regular enough in teaching – that it’s where I get a lot of energy from.”
Rooney, a teacher at West Leyden High School in the suburbs of Chicago and mentor teacher through TFAS partner the Foundation for Teaching Economics, has a long history with public service and giving back – both in and out of the classroom.
He has taught history, economics and social studies for nearly 25 years, served six years in the United States Marine Corps Reserves, and held numerous posts in public office. In addition to serving as a city alderman, and mayor, Rooney was an Illinois state senator alongside TFAS alumnus Dan McConchie ’93, ’95, who was Rooney’s roommate and commuting companion while they were both working in Springfield.
Dedication to Students
While Rooney was serving his community and giving back over the past 20 years, he never stopped teaching. Whether through arranging co-teaching schedules or traveling back while the legislature wasn’t in session, he has always remained dedicated to his students.
It is no surprise that Rooney’s pupils at West Leyden frequently give him high marks on evaluations and feedback. His classes are some of the most popular at the school, and students say that his teaching brings new ideas to life and helps them understand challenging topics in a fun way.
“In my classroom, every Friday we play economics games – FTE style – to help students better grasp ideas,” he explained.
Economics helps kids develop the habits of thinking that not only will they need to get around in the world, but–quite frankly–that the world needs them to have.” – Tom Rooney
In addition to using economics activities in his own classroom, Rooney also teaches teachers how to teach economics as an FTE mentor teacher at the same conferences he attended with FTE in 1999. Over the years, Rooney has remained dedicated to bringing these skills to teachers across the U.S. because he believes: “More than anything else economics is a way of thinking.”
“It has a body of knowledge, but it’s a way of thinking about the world, a way of thinking about how people interact,” he explained. “Economics helps kids develop the habits of thinking that not only will they need to get around in the world, but–quite frankly–that the world needs them to have.”
As classes and programs for FTE summer sessions have shifted into virtual format, Rooney is confident that the intellectual components of FTE still provide a positive experience for students online.
“The brainwork that the kids do during that week is so strong, that we can still pull it off,” he said. “FTE doesn’t pick teachers who just talk at students, they choose engaging, interactive teachers who teach real lessons.”
The Fund for American Studies is proud to have dedicated teachers like Tom Rooney who give back to students each year. To learn more about TFAS’s high school programming division, please visit FTE.org.