Golden Apple Awards: 37 Teachers and Educators to Celebrate

If there’s one thing we know for certain in these uncertain times, it’s that children and young adults hold the key to a brighter (and hopefully safer) future. Beyond parents and caregivers, there’s no one more fundamental to the positive development of our kids than their teachers and school leaders.

Golden Apple, a nonprofit dedicated to developing and supporting teachers in Illinois schools, has announced its finalists for this year’s Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching and Stanley C. Golder Leadership Awards. Golden Apple invests in quality teachers so that Illinois students, many of whom are underprivileged, may flourish in their classrooms.

More than 650 Pre-K through third-grade teachers from the Chicago area were nominated for the Golden Apple Awards, and 30 were selected as finalists. Seven additional finalists have been named for the Stanley C. Golder Awards, which recognize excellence in school leadership of Pre-K through 12th grade principals and heads of school. We asked these accomplished finalists to share some invaluable pieces of advice for parents and students ahead of the Celebration of Excellence in Teaching & Leadership, which will take place on Feb. 24. See if your favorite teacher made the list, and read the words of wisdom from these visionary educators.

2018 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching Award Finalists

Heather Duncan

South Shore Fine Arts Academy, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Heather Duncan

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher.

The best part of teaching preschool is the numerous opportunities you have to see children “get it” … to watch something click for the first time. Last year, I became more intentional about helping my kids grow their metacognition — thinking about their own thinking — set goals for themselves, and assess their own learning. This was no easy task with 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. It was a lot of work; devising an appropriate system of levels for them to consider, teaching them to use the system — and most of all getting them to be honest with themselves — took lesson after lesson. No one “got it” … it wasn’t clicking. Just as I was questioning the developmental appropriateness of this idea — and my skills as a teacher — one of my 4-year-olds walked up to me and said, “Well, my goal today was to clean up really fast, but I started playing again and I forgot. Tomorrow, I’m going to remember! Can you write my goal down to remind me?” I almost cried. While some of those kids are probably still working on self-assessment, a few got it, and I got to watch it click AND watch them see themselves “get it.” For a teacher, it doesn’t get any better than that.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Be sure to ask questions of your child’s teachers or other adults in their school if you have them. It’s so much easier for all of us — the families, the teachers and the children — to meet each others’ needs and fulfill expectations if we keep the lines of communication open.

What is your best advice for students today?

Try every interesting thing your school offers — especially a chance to see or experience something you might not otherwise see or experience. Find out what you like and pursue it. Don’t be so concerned about looking silly or what other people are doing that you miss out on great opportunities.

Nancy Cordova

Calmeca Academy of Fine Arts & Dual Language, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Nancy Cordova

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

The most rewarding moment for me as a teacher this year was when I got fully funded for a grant I wrote for leveled English readers for my class. I saw a great need to advocate for my students whom are English Learners and need early on exposure to the language through rich texts in vivid color. Sadly, the only leveled readers we had in class in English were in black and white! Children are visual learners and therefore, seeing things as they appear in real life are essential in developing early literacy skills and building background knowledge. I was so excited for my students when I knew these grant materials were on their way, but I was more happy to see the look in their faces when they saw the boxes of books delivered to class!

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

The number one piece of advice I always tell my parents is “read with your child everyday!” It is amazing to see how engaged children become when they are read to. There are so many opportunities for academic and vocabulary growth when children are read to. Students whom parents invest time in reading at least 10 minutes a day have such a great advantage over others whom might just sit in front of a television. So I always encourage parents to read, whether it be for school, for pleasure, or just plain fun and adventure!

What is your best advice for students today?

I wish that someone had always told me this growing up, the one best advice I always tell my students is to never stop dreaming. I think it is important for all students to know that they all have potential and they all have great strength and expertise in something no matter how big or small it may be. I believe it is imperative that we foster a love for learning in children early on and they know themselves that there is truly no limit to what they can accomplish if they put forth an effort and believe in themselves. So I tell my students if you wish to become an Astronaut one day, you can! You must work hard … and never give up! Never stop dreaming.

Kary Zarate

George B. Swift Specialty School, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Kary Zarate

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

Having worked as a special educator for many years, it’s so challenging to pick just one rewarding moment, because there are a million that happen daily in my classroom. Pressed to choose one, it’s when a non-verbal student begins using words, or a picture communication device, and realizes that they have power and choice in their lives. It is absolutely the most awe-inspiring experience and I am lucky enough to witness it relatively often.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Celebrate all the small things while they are small; cheerlead not only your child, but your teachers too.

What is your best advice for students today?

Kindness, kindness, kindness. Everyone has a story and it’s OK to ask about it and approach one another as long as it’s done with kindness.

Ann Fehser

John Laidlaw Elementary School, Western Springs

Golden Apple Awards: Ann Fehser

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

During my first year of teaching 2nd grade I had a student who struggled with a spelling test. He brought the graded test to me, we chatted, and my last comment to him was, “There’s always next week.” Alex wrote about that one fleeting moment when he was in middle school and how those four words impacted him to develop a growth mindset.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Parents, please value the process of learning over the product. The more fun children have as they learn new things, the more likely they are to continue to develop a lifelong love of learning.

What is your best advice for students today?

Students, remember the power of “YET!” Not knowing how to do something doesn’t mean you never will. It means you haven’t “YET.” Have confidence, determination, persistence, and do not ever be afraid to make a mistake. 

Kristin Mitchell

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School, Evanston

Golden Apple Awards: Kristin Mitchell

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

Every year, around February, it’s almost as if a window opens and knowledge just starts flowing from my students. All the work we have done in the front part of the year has built up and is now exploding from them! My students begin reading and writing more fluently, but most importantly, with confidence! It’s my favorite part of the year!

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

One piece of advice for parents with school aged children, especially kindergarten students, is to let them be kids! We work so hard during the school day and we appreciated the reinforcement that is provided at home. However, it’s still important for children to have an opportunity to play with peers in an unstructured environment and develop their imaginations. These skills help them to become better learners in the classroom as well!

What is your best advice for students today?

My best advice for students today is that it is OK to make mistakes! We cannot all learn something and do it perfectly the first time. We can learn from our mistakes and grow as learners when we recognize them and work to fix them!

Caitlin Reusche

Suder Montessori Magnet School, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Caitlin Reusche

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

It’s hard to pick just one! Observing children making connections on their own is so rewarding. You know your careful direction led them to this point and you really enjoy their excitement about their success!

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Read to your child everyday! Not only is this the best way to build pre-literacy skills, it’s an easy and fun way to connect to your child. Find out what interests your child and make trips to the library together!

What is your best advice for students today?

Always ask “why?” Curiosity is what drives ingenuity and creativity.

Erica Barraza

Lotus Elementary School, Spring Grove

Golden Apple Awards: Erica Barraza

What is your best advice for students today?

Success is not a destination, it’s a journey. So along your journey, fall in love with life and the people around you and when you make mistakes (because you will), use them to grow. Afterall, love and change are the only two constants. Embrace them. Learn from them.

Julie Ahern

Andrew Cooke Magnet Elementary School, Waukegan

Golden Apple Awards: Julie Ahern

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

One of my most rewarding and defining moments occurred when another student came to our room for a break and upon seeing the 3D printer in action asked, “What is that?!” As the teacher, I started walking in his direction to explain it all, however, one of my quietest students took his arm and brought him over and started to share all about the process, described the parts on the printer, and finally the future potential of this technology. He listened with rapt attention and she shared with awe-inspiring confidence. If ever there was a defining moment for me, this was one of them. Her confidence and knowledge summed it all up: We need our students to be complex problem-solvers, communicators, and ready to tackle the new and unimaginable (but exciting!) career opportunities that will be there when they graduate.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Although it could be said that my students are young at 8 years old, I truly feel it is not too early to plant that visionary seed in each one of them. In the future they will not necessarily be ‘makers’ anymore but become the creators and designers of the technology that will produce and serve us. Parents will be a huge part of the picture by encouraging their students to learn to code, collaborate, and think out of the box — all future necessary skills.

What is your best advice for students today?

Of course educators will continue to teach the basics to our students, however, the future they will face demands that they expand in other directions as well. I recently read that 65 percent of the jobs they will face someday do not even exist yet. Therefore, I will ask of them to work on skills such as complex problem-solving, collaboration, and the ability to communicate with diverse colleagues across the globe. What an exciting future they will face!

Saskia Gorospe-Rombouts

Academy for Global Citizenship, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Saskia Gorospe-Rombouts

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

There are too many to choose from! I teach in a Dual Language setting where students of different linguistic backgrounds work together toward their common goal of bilingualism and biliteracy. Every day I get to watch young children use amazing linguistic creativity to figure out the world around them. My role as an educator is to support and facilitate their journey. We all grow together. It’s incredibly rewarding to engage in rich and meaningful conversations about language with my class. You might be surprised to overhear 1st graders discuss the complexity of language, including how it works, and the power of words to affect people. These discussions help my students develop an identity as dual language learners. They proudly celebrate their bilingualism while learning to be open-minded and supportive of others’ differences.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

My advice to parents is to trust in your child’s ability to learn and thrive when given the opportunity. Celebrate your child for who he or she is. Engage in this journey of learning by sharing your family’s experiences and culture. You are your child’s first teacher.

What is your best advice for students today?

You are unique! You come to school every day with your own set of experiences and knowledge. Share them with your classroom community. Your individuality enriches our whole community.

Cheryl Frawley

Betsy Ross Elementary School, Forest Park

Golden Apple Awards: Cheryl Frawley

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

The most rewarding moment as a kindergarten teacher is when students start to read independently. They go from learning the alphabet and letter sounds in the fall to being able to sound out unfamiliar words and recognize sight words as the school year goes on. There is no greater feeling than seeing how excited they get when they realize they can read on their own after all the time we’ve spent practicing. They are always so proud to show off and it warms my heart every time I listen to them read.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

My advice to parents is to focus on spending quality time with their children. Academics are important in helping students get into the right schools and career paths, but it is also essential that students develop social-emotional skills to be a well-rounded citizen in society. Spending time making memories, having quality conversations, and providing diverse experiences will go far in helping to develop those skills.

What is your best advice for students today?

Be kind to yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to fail.

Melissa Halusek

Pleasantdale Elementary School, La Grange

Golden Apple Awards: Melissa Halusek

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

To be honest, I can think of a rewarding moment for every day of teaching. Even the smallest successes of my students are gratifying and make every day of teaching worthwhile.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

I advise parents to model a growth mindset for their children. Sharing your own personal challenges and triumphs with children shows them that when things get challenging, they too can persevere. Trying something new and demonstrating that effort is just as important as success teaches a valuable lesson.

What is your best advice for students today?

My best advice for students today is to embrace a challenge and acknowledge mistakes as opportunities for learning and growing. With practice, perseverance, and effort, I believe one can achieve anything. Being an inspired, passionate learner is forever empowering.

Megan Shore

Oakbrook Elementary, Wood Dale

Golden Apple Awards: Megan Shore

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

This year I overheard one of my Polish speakers asking her Spanish-speaking friend how to say something in Spanish. The two of them engaged in a conversation about Polish, Spanish, and English cognates. At the end of snack time, they both came over to me and recounted all the similarities and differences they had noted. Nothing makes me more proud than when my students celebrate and embrace each others’ differences. They also share a love of language learning, which I hope they will continue to pursue long after second grade.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Teach your children to persevere. Welcome their curiosities and encourage them to ask questions. Turn their curiosity into new learning by checking out books on the topic or researching it on the internet.

What is your best advice for students today?

The most important thing you can learn as a student is how to be a good future citizen that follows the golden rule. Treat everyone you meet the way you would like to be treated. If you have the opportunity to learn a new language or improve upon one that you already speak, do it! Multilingualism is a skill that can propel you into a brighter future.

Gwendolyn Faulkner

McKenzie Elementary School, Wilmette

Golden Apple Awards: Gwendolyn Faulkner

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

The most rewarding and bittersweet moments I have experienced as a teacher have happened on the last day of school. We reflect on treasured memories as students remark on their personal growth, laugh as we recollect long forgotten funny moments, and each student shares his/her proudest accomplishment from the year. It makes me so grateful to have had the privilege to be their teacher. Each student has found a place in my heart that will always be saved just for them. On that last day of school, it feels so rewarding to realize just how far each child has come and how much closer they are to realizing their personal dreams.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Let children make mistakes. Mistakes are crucial for learning and are facts of life. Childhood is the age where children should make mistakes because they have a support network of family members and teachers to help them reflect upon those mistakes and embrace them as teachable moments. The best thing you can do to set your child up for success down the road is to model this yourself and help your child pause, take a deep breath, reflect, and share different choices he or she would make moving forward.

What is your best advice for students today?

My best piece of advice I would and do give my students is, “Trust yourself and all that you are capable of. Know that you can do more than you ever thought possible, today, right now, this minute. Don’t wait until you are some magic age and finally ‘old enough’ to be able to set lofty goals and achieve big dreams. Today, not tomorrow or next year, is the day to take your first baby step toward your goal.”

Lisset Carrasco

Grover Cleveland Elementary School, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Lisset Carrasco

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

As an educator the most rewarding moment is when my students show collaborate learning. I feel proud when I hear, “If I can do it, you can too! Come let’s try it!” Not only are they proving to be confident problem solvers, but they are encouraging their peers to be too. They understand we all have the potential, and no learner is left behind.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

One piece of advice I have for parents is to be involved. Involvement no matter how small it might seem can have the greatest impact in your child’s education. This strengthens the value your child places on their education and creates a strong bond to be a lifelong learner.

What is your best advice for students today?

The best advice I can give to my students is that perseverance and grit is key to success. There will be many obstacles in their academic and personal lives, but these obstacles are meant to teach us important lessons along the way. If we face these challenges with determination, we will overcome them and triumph. Failure is failing to try.

Michael Golub

Mary Gage Peterson Elementary, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Michael Golub

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

“You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!” —Dr. Seuss

This year marks my 11th year teaching kindergarten. I consider myself extremely fortunate that I have a career I love and get to have my rewarding moment come around every day. My rewarding moments are when I lend a helping hand in teaching my kids to read. The power of reading propels people to become independent and find their passions.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

The best advice I have for parents is to be and stay involved. For some parents it is nearly impossible to volunteer in the classroom. If that is the case do your best to open the line of communication with your child’s teacher. Additionally and most importantly show interest in your child’s day and read to your child every night.

What is your best advice for students today?

My advice to students of all ages is to know and remember that when you are going through a tough time, that you will persevere. Students today need to know that everyone has struggles in life and that in the long run the bumps make you a stronger and better person. The bumps are part of your story and even though you may not be in the best chapter that much of your story lies ahead.

Xenia Martinez-Downs

Little Village Academy, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Xenia Martinez-Downs

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

There have been many rewarding moments as a teacher in my 19 years. The moment that stands out the most is when I received a new transfer to my class. I was teaching 3rd grade and he came in toward the middle of October, not knowing most of his alphabet. Sadly, he had been led to believe that he just couldn’t learn. I wanted to show him otherwise! We worked so hard … he worked much harder. The first time he read a sentence and realized he WAS reading was priceless. He couldn’t stop smiling and tears rolled down his cheeks. From there, he just took off!

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Choose a time of the day to put your devices away or turn them off and sit down to have a conversation as a family. Yes … this means you too! Unfortunately, social media has taken over the many opportunities we have to socialize on a personal level. Children have so much to say to us and to each other. Listen, love, and enjoy because our children will grow up and leave. Our phones, tablets, and all other devices will not.

What is your best advice for students today?

Don’t let ANYONE tell you that you are incapable of learning. Let their negativity be your fuel to work harder, stronger, and smarter. SHOW them that you ARE capable.

Dawn Majer

Ardmore Elementary School, Villa Park

Golden Apple Awards: Dawn Majer

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

My most rewarding moments are sharing each and every day with the students. I encourage my students to become curious learners, develop peer relationships through social emotional learning, and welcome the struggles while celebrating the triumphs in both social and academic learning. Together we share the excitement and success. Knowing that I help a child to feel valued is my token of reward.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

My advice for parents is to talk to your children. Hold conversations and discussions to build background knowledge and vocabulary. Read to your children — they are never too old to be read to!

What is your best advice for students today?

Students, you hold the future. Take ownership of your learning, make mistakes, and build growth mindset. Always reach for the stars!

Carrie Garrett

Lynne Thigpen Elementary School, Joliet

Golden Apple Awards: Carrie Garrett

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

This is why I have the best job ever, because it’s not just one rewarding moment, rather a series of moments all year, every year. Sometimes it’s a note from a parent, or watching a child do something they couldn’t do just a month ago. But the most rewarding moments are the most humbling and often come when I, myself, am feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted. Then, the most unexpected thing happens and you realize today meant something to that child and all I had to do was care!

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Connect. Every day, no matter how busy and tired you are, find time to connect with your child and just talk. Talk with them about their day, share their highs and lows, share your highs and lows, read a book together, and laugh.

What is your best advice for students today?

I think students need to know that learning is hard work, but then it’s easy. So my best advice is DON’T GIVE UP. When you feel that rub of frustration, that’s you getting smarter, and you might not be able to do it today or even tomorrow, but keep at it and don’t quit. One day it will be so easy you’ll wonder why you ever thought it was difficult.

Jeri Faber

Ringwood School Primary Center, Ringwood

Golden Apple Awards: Jeri Faber

What is your best advice for students today?

I have a powerful three letter word for students … yet! If you can’t do something, instead of saying I can’t do it, just add the word yet to the end of that statement — I can’t do it yet. This word will change your mindset and allow you to grow in ways that you never thought were possible. It has the power to forgive your mistakes and unlock your potential. Remember that every president, engineer, astronaut, or teacher once sat in a classroom just like you. If you dream it, you can achieve it with the power of yet!

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

One piece of advice I have for parents is to praise children for their work ethic rather than the results. Celebrate their attempts at solving problems and the process that they go through. This fosters the attitude of embracing struggles as a means of accomplishing a goal. Children with this growth mindset will see unlimited possibilities through practice and hard work. But remember, success looks different for each child and we need to applaud even the small successes.

Lisa Buchholz

Abraham Lincoln Elementary, Glen Ellyn

Golden Apple Awards: Lisa Buchholz

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

It’s so hard to pick just one moment as the most rewarding … so I will pick the most recent example. This week, our class gained a new student who has never attended school. On the first day in our classroom he was having some (very understandable) issues with adjusting. Apparently my students were paying close attention to how I would calm this little guy during melt downs. At his first lunch/recess time, our new student wanted to play in the puddles and started to melt down when he was told “no.” My students then apparently used the strategies they had observed in class to calm him and help him. As I listened to them excitedly explain this story to me, I was so proud … and it’s these moments that make me feel blessed to be a part of this profession. First graders are amazing little learners!

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

I think one piece of advice I would give parents today is to not do everything for their children. As parents, we often want to make sure our children have everything they need … and it’s often quicker and easier to do things for our children (tie shoes, pack the backpack, clean up spills, etc.) than to have them do it independently. Independence is one of the biggest gifts we can give to our children!!

What is your best advice for students today?

My advice for students is to take charge of their own learning! Teachers can expose students to concepts and skills, but students have to do their part by making sure they are ready to learn and focused on the lessons. They have to really be trying to learn new things every day. This may sound crazy especially for our youngest learners, but even 1st graders can grasp this concept. We have open discussions in class about how I can’t just come and plunk today’s math lesson in your head … as a student, you have to make sure you are sitting where you can see and hear, make sure that you are focused, and make sure you ask questions when things don’t make sense. It’s so precious when kids remind each other to take charge of their own learning!!

Daneal Silvers

Edison Regional Gifted Center, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Daneal Silvers

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

Almost every single rewarding moment I’ve experienced as a teacher is in some part due to carefully listening and deeply caring. It is in these beautiful, meaningful conversations with my students I find I am able to discover what makes each of my students genuinely light up. If I’ve done this well, then I have the ability to create a supportive, engaging learning environment, which gives even the youngest learners voice, choice, and ownership over their learning paths. I believe, if first, I get to know the children I teach, and second, I thoughtfully design a curriculum around their intelligences, preferences, and needs, then I help develop members of a community who will also listen and care deeply. The most rewarding and memorable teaching moments I possess are those in which my students became proud of their accomplishments, aware of their talents, and certain of their ability not only to guide themselves but to also assist others. It is this self-awareness and assuredness of the power of their own voices that will empower them to change the world.

Jodi Christoforou

Olive-Mary Stitt Elementary School, Arlington Heights

Golden Apple Awards: Jodi Christoforou

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

Toward the end of each day with about 10 or so minutes left, I may say,” OK boys and girls, it’s just about time to go home.”

The responses start with,

“Oh no! I don’t want to go home!”

“Yeah, Mrs. C., can’t we stay?”

“I still have things I want to do!”

That is rewarding, and I never want to go home either!

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Read. Read. Read to your child, cultivate their love for reading, and their desire to be around books. Just never stop reading — to them, with them, and encourage them to do it on their own. I firmly believe, for an elementary child, there is nothing more important. Reading is a building block for all future success.

What is your best advice for students today?

Wonder about things you know and don’t know, ask many questions because there are never too many questions, and have fun at school, laugh!

Brittany Williams

Brentano Math & Science Academy, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Brittany Williams

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

The most rewarding moments for me as a teacher are the days I grab my book and lay on the ground with the kids and just read. Looking around, there is a feeling of relaxation, enjoyment, and community. As teachers, we worry so much about how to teach reading that we forget to teach students how a reader looks.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Read-aloud great books to your child even as they grow older. Kids need to hear and see adults as readers and learners. Otherwise, reading for enjoyment is something many students will stop. Let them pick what they read even if it is too easy or hard. Their love of reading is more important than their reading level.

What is your best advice for students today?

Find beauty in the things you hate or struggle with. I never appreciated math until I had a teacher that taught me math was all around me and not just the worksheet in front of me. As a struggling reader throughout school, I never really loved and appreciated books until another showed me the beauty that books have.

Anita Unzueta

Little Village Academy, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Anita Unzueta

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

My most rewarding moment as an educator is understanding that children want education to be fun, meaningful, and interactive — not just topics and facts that are memorized yearly.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

My advice for parents with school-aged children is to not limit their child’s learning experiences because they are an essential part of child development. Life experiences are crucial to our children because they enable them to become more resilient and successful when making decisions.

What is your best advice for students today?

The best advice I can give students is to fight for your education, demand what your heart desires, and be eager to understand your world. We as teachers thrive on your enthusiasm to learn about their world.

Melissa Holland

Jordan Community Elementary School, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Melissa Holland

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

As a special education teacher, I work with many students who need intensive supports in academics or with behavior. During our time together, many of my students make tremendous progress and some eventually need less intensive services, which means that they would no longer work with me. Times like this are one of the most rewarding because I am so proud of the progress they made, but they are also challenging because I will miss working with them. I feel so rewarded when I see that student succeed academically and behaviorally, have trust in themselves and their abilities, and achieve greater independence. My most rewarding moments happen when a student begins to believe in themselves and their abilities.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

A piece of advice I would give parents of school-aged children is to teach and encourage your children to be kind and accepting. In a world where there is such competition, it can be easy to only focus on academic success, but it is still very important that children learn how to treat each other, solve disagreements, and celebrate differences. Encourage your child to be proud of themselves and to support others, to celebrate those who are different, and to be a good human being in the big and small moments. Aesop’s Fable, The Lion and the Mouse, taught us “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

What is your best advice for students today?

My advice to students today is to remember that it is OK to try and to make mistakes. There is so much pressure to achieve on the first try, it can be very challenging to try again after a setback. I want students to know that it is OK to make a mistake and have to start over or to try to do something a different way. Ask for help, lean on friends and family, take a break, but don’t quit! The accomplishment is sometimes that you persevered and that you didn’t give up!

Alyssa Lipuma

Brook Park Elementary School, La Grange Park

Golden Apple Awards: Alyssa Lipuma

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

Being nominated for the Golden Apple Award has been the highlight of my career to date. Knowing that kids, parents, and staff believe in me as a teacher energizes me to keep learning, working hard, and growing in my profession.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Kids are capable of a lot more than we think they are, so don’t be afraid to give them space to try things on their own first before stepping in to help.

What is your best advice for students today?

Approach challenges optimistically and with a growth mindset. Mistakes are where the best learning happens!

Maureen Gallagher

Arthur Dixon Elementary School, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Maureen Gallagher

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

My most rewarding moment as a teacher was coincidentally this 2017-2018 school year. The day I found out I was nominated was a normal day of teaching. My principal made an announcement that I was nominated for the Golden Apple Award over the PA system to the students and staff. In that moment, I was shocked. I have taught for 19 years with my focus on my students, never expecting an award. I truly began to feel that I have made a positive impact on my students, my fellow colleagues, and my administration.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

My advice for parents of school-aged children is to really expose their children to the world through books and real-life experiences. I feel that books open the entire world to a child’s imagination and can build motivation for them to continue to read and learn. It is imperative that parents make sure their children understand that getting an education will help them to live a life full of opportunities that no one can take away from them. Having an education allows them to have choices for their future. The impact of real life experiences on a young child is immeasurable. I feel that many of our young students do not know a lot about our world we live in, the different cultures that are around us, and the various traditions people hold dear.

What is your best advice for students today?

My advice to students today is to take their education seriously. Do not let anything or anyone derail this goal. I would advise students that once they have their education, many doors would be open to them and stay open because they have earned their degree(s). I would stress to students to really focus on math and science. These two subjects are where our future is headed.

Rebecca Kelly

Arbor View Elementary School, Glen Ellyn

Golden Apple Awards: Rebecca Kelly

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

I teach preschool and kindergarten students who have a variety of disabilities and face significant challenges. Every day, I’m proud to see my students reach unforgettable milestones. But some of the most rewarding moments have been understanding the impact they have on others. My students have 5th grade “buddies” who regularly visit our class. I’ve watched as they have taught these older kids to love unconditionally, to have more patience, and to celebrate the little things in life. In a letter, one of the 5th graders wrote, “The kids in Miss Becky’s classroom are my role models because they are so small and cute but they face challenges everyday and deal with those challenges so well. I think seeing these incredible kids makes a huge positive impact on everyone, just like it has done to me.” Knowing my students have had such an impact is one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve experienced as a teacher.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

If I were to give one piece of advice to parents with school-aged children, I would tell them to always hold their children to high expectations. I believe that all kids can and will learn. Children need high standards and it is our job as adults to hold them accountable. I am lucky to teach preschoolers and kindergarteners with a variety of severe disabilities. My students, no matter what challenges they may face, have consistently proven to me that they will rise to the high expectations I create for them. Never underestimate what a child can do.

What is your best advice for students today?

My best advice for students is to just be yourself. I teach preschool and kindergarten students with a variety of severe disabilities. I work extremely hard to make them proud of who they are, no matter what their abilities may be. In my classroom, we celebrate each other’s strengths and areas of needs, while welcoming diversity. I ensure that all of my students know that they are loved just the way they are. I also try to use the diversity of my students as a learning opportunity to teach others about accepting differences and embracing uniqueness. Too often, society makes us believe that we need to conform to a certain set of standards in order to fit in. I strongly disagree. As Dr. Seuss wrote, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”

Meghan Dolan

John M. Palmer Elementary School, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Meghan Dolan

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

It is hard to pinpoint the most rewarding moment because there are everyday teaching moments that are memorable. It is the students screaming with pure joy during a science experiment; it is the student who asks a question that makes me ponder the answer; it is when the students carry on their own academic discussions; it is laughter from students after I have shared a funny story; it is a kind letter from a parent thanking me for inspiring their child; it is a former student giving me a hug saying they miss me; it is a student who asks for help; and it is the student who finally “gets it.” These everyday moments add up to the extraordinary experience of being a teacher.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Parents play a valuable role in their child’s education. By collaborating together respectfully with the teacher and taking an active role in their child’s learning, a winning team will be formed.

What is your best advice for students today

Be the kid who chooses kindness, celebrates others, works hard always, and believes they can achieve anything!

Lisa Washington Kuzel

The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Lisa Washington Kuzel

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

One of the most rewarding moments that I recall quite vividly was when the parent of one of my students told me, with tears in her eyes, the difference I had made in their family’s life. When her daughter first came to my class, she had difficulty connecting with others and often seemed withdrawn, apprehensive, and sad. I knew music was her passion and a way in which I could forge a relationship with her, so I went to one of her Sunday piano recitals. Seeing her in her element and getting to meet her extended family gave me an additional way to connect with her in the classroom, which in turn enabled her to feel valued and comfortable enough to reach out and learn.

Even though that little girl is now in 2nd grade, her mother continues to remind me of how much that day meant to her daughter and their whole family. She said it made her daughter feel so special and cared about that her confidence in herself and as a student just soared. She told me that they always say that was the day their daughter learned to love school.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Listen to your child. Children have so much to say. Just think about it, children spend most of their day being talked to. But in my classroom, I always make time to listen to my students. In fact, it’s part of the daily routine. I provide many opportunities for my students to speak and be heard. That way they learn to engage with other human beings, express themselves, and communicate. When you listen close enough, you’d be surprised at what you’ll learn.

What is your best advice for students today?

Play hard, get dirty, laugh out loud! Put all your energy into everything you do. In kindergarten we always say, if you come home good and dirty, it means you’ve had a great day. The harder you play, the more you learn, the better you sleep, the bigger you dream.

2018 Stanley C. Golder Leadership Award Finalists

Victor Iturralde

Solorio Academy High School, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Victor Iturralde

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

A few years ago, I was invited to the 10 year anniversary celebration of my former school. I had been on the team of administrators who opened the school, and learned a great deal from all of the hard work it took building up a school from the ground up. We had asked those founding families to take a leap of faith with us, and now we had the privilege of celebrating 10 years of success stories. As I was introduced and walked on the stage, I looked around in amazement at the full house. It was standing room only, even the balcony was filled. I stood there — speechless at the mic — to a standing ovation that lasted a few minutes. Their show of appreciation felt so genuine. I was overwhelmed with emotion as I was reminded of what led me to this career choice. I chose to be an educator to try to make a difference in children’s lives so as to impact their families, their neighborhoods, their communities. It is rejuvenating to know that one’s efforts have been impactful

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

No one teaches us how to be good parents, and each child’s needs are unique. We have to customize our approach. Some children need lots of encouragement, while others need monitoring. Some children are self-motivated, while others need incentive. All of our children need our unconditional love and support, whatever form it takes. I advise parents to learn from their mistakes just as we expect from our children and to let our children know that we are learning too. We should all be lifelong learners, and we should all model that to our children.

What is your best advice for students today?

Dream big. Work hard. Ask for help and above all — know who you are! All of your experiences — good and bad — have made you who you are. You write your own story. Don’t be defined by others.

Kathryn Baal

Loyola Academy, Wilmette

Golden Apple Awards: Kathryn Baal

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Patience is essential for any parent. It is important to trust that with time your children will become the individual they are called to be but to do such, you need to allow them to make their own mistakes and fail. It is through challenges and failure that adolescents learn the most while simultaneously building resilience. So my advice to parents is to be there when your child falls to comfort him or her, but do not try to catch them all the time.

Stacy Stewart

Belmont-Cragin, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Stacy Stewart

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

My high point began when we learned that our school was moving to a new location, which was not heavily favored by some parents and community members. It was not only a test of my leadership but of my staff as well. We saw this obstacle as an opportunity to use empathy to engage all stakeholders in our new school community. Our team conducted empathy studies and worked collaboratively with community partners, parents, students, and school staff. I enlisted the support teachers and staff to establish an SEL leadership team and secured an evidenced-based SEL curriculum. We scheduled SEL into the school schedule that included time for morning meetings, cross-age buddies, and monthly parent activities. As a result of our collective efforts, Belmont-Cragin was awarded national status as an Ashoka Changemaker School and an “Exemplary Award” from the district for Social and Emotional Learning.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

One piece of advice that I would give to parents with school-age children is to have a willingness to listen to your child regardless of the outcome. When you take the time to do this it says to a child, “I value you,” and I’m willing to support you no matter what.

What is your best advice for students today?

The advice I would give to students is to not see failure as an endpoint, but an opportunity to learn from mistakes and improve. It’s not about skill, but one’s GRIT to persevere through life’s lessons.

Jose M. Torres

Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Aurora

Golden Apple Awards: Jose M. Torres

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

One of my most rewarding moments as a school leader is seeing that many of the initiatives that I put in place as a superintendent between 2008 and 2014 in school district U-46, Elgin, continue to be supported and have borne fruit for the students, teachers, and the community.

The following are three examples:

  • The New York Times article on school districts that accelerate student achievement identified Elgin as one of those districts using a data set from when I was the Superintendent.
  • The transformation of bilingual programs to dual language programs in the district continues to progress now impacting high school programs. I would project that soon many students will be receiving the ISBE bilingual seal of literacy on their high school diplomas.
  • Less than a year after I departed the district, school district leadership was invited to the White House to learn from the district how we had reduced suspensions and expulsions of students.

I’m proud of my leadership of IMSA’s successful bid to host the 2018 International Student Science Fair (ISSF) for the first time in the United States of America. The key issues of science and technology today are not bound by our Academy walls, our state, or even our nation. Clean energy, issues of health, lack of clean water, and poverty are some of our world’s most pressing problems. ISSF 2018 aims to bring together the brightest young minds from across the globe to collaborate on these issues faced by humanity. ISSF will bring schools from over 20 countries to IMSA. See ISSF2018.com

I’m also proud that we built IN2, the Steve and Jaime Chen Center for Innovation and Inquiry, a state-of-the-art innovation space that focuses IMSA and our surrounding businesses on innovation. IMSA and IN2 received the Chicago Innovation People’s Choice Award in October 2017.

Additionally, my focus at IMSA since 2014 has been on recruiting and retaining underrepresented students from low income, rural, and black and Latino students to gain access to IMSA, thus democratizing access to high levels of STEM teaching and learning opportunities. Over the past four years, we have increased access for high ability, low income students by 30 percent.

Finally, IMSA has adopted the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (UN 17 SDGs) as our guide for teaching and learning impacting curriculum, research, outreach, and innovation programs.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

I would advise parents to help their children continue to be curious, ask deeper questions, and put less focus on grades, but rather focus on what their children are learning in terms of different literacies (i.e., numeracy, scientific literacy, etc.), competencies (i.e., collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity), and character (i.e., curiosity, persistence, global perspective, etc.). Also, limit their screen time and activities on social media.

What is your best advice for students today?

Same as advice to parents.

Jason Patera

The Chicago Academy for the Arts, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Jason Patera

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

Each Friday, I shake every student’s hand as they leave school for the weekend, and I make it a point to have something personal and positive to say to as many as I can. The interaction is such an authentically human way to end the week, and it reinforces the importance of community. Our students’ sincere and eager participation in such a simple tradition is often the most satisfying element of my week. (I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I often get “#handshake” texts from alums.)

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Curiosity, creativity, authenticity, and passion will take your child further than any strategically constructed resume of AP classes, ACT scores, GPAs, and hollow service. Do everything you can to cultivate the former early, so you’re not scrambling for the latter, later.

What is your best advice for students today?

You will be much happier by actually being someone, rather than just seeming like someone. Work hard to know the difference, because the only reasonable pursuit in life is happiness. (I usually follow up with, “Argue for your limitations, and you get to keep them.”)

Catherine Plocher

Augustus H. Burley School, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Catherine Plocher

Tell us about your most rewarding moment as a teacher or principal/school leader.

I have numerous moments as both a teacher and as an administrator that have been extremely rewarding. When I think about rewarding moments, I realize that it’s often the many small everyday moments and experiences that have lead to and created these bigger moments.

I have found the most rewarding moments have been when students internalize and independently embody everyday acts of kindness; when students that didn’t believe in themselves, had the self-confidence, had the support or the tools to succeed have found success and belief in themselves; when students internalize and embody the true meaning of being an upstander, and when I am reminded of how it really takes a village to make a real community.

As one of many examples of these rewarding moments … Each year during our 8th grade celebration when students reflect on how not only their instructional experience has impacted them and prepared them for life, but also how their social emotional development has made them advocates for others, upstanders, empathetic, and humanitarians.

What’s one piece of advice you have for parents with school-aged children?

Celebrate your child’s incremental successes with them even if they are not the fastest runners or best readers. Every child has successes worth celebrating. In addition, celebrate effort and perseverance even when your children don’t always succeed. Being the best isn’t the most important factor — it’s often the lessons learned along the journey that matter most.

What is your best advice for students today?

Take risks, see mistakes as learning opportunities, have empathy for others, and make a conscious effort to be kind. We can create the kind of world we want to live in, starting with ourselves.

Gregory Jones

Kenwood Academy High School, Chicago

Golden Apple Awards: Gregory Jones