Seven of this year’s 20 Golden Apple of Rockford finalists are graduates of the NIU College of Education.
They teach in Rockford, Belvidere, Durand, Machesney Park, Rockton and South Beloit. They teach preschool, kindergarten, third-grade, fourth-grade and fifth-grade. They came to teaching immediately – or after other careers.
But they all share a strong passion for their profession, a humble camaraderie with the other teachers in their seven different buildings across Boone and Winnebago counties and a solid foundation in their NIU preparation.
Laura Brooks, Tui Harned, Lisa Istad, Rebecca Kallstrom, Patricia Magallanes, Danielle Peterson and Miranda Thompson will learn in March whether they among this year’s five honorees chosen to receive scholarships, stipends and resources to enhance their classrooms.
Jennifer Stark, executive director of the Golden Apple Foundation, calls the annual selection process a good chance to demonstrate the educational excellence of local teachers to their northern Illinois neighbors and stakeholders.
“Each teacher was nominated by a student, parent or community member who wanted them to know the significant impact they are making in their students’ lives, and these finalists recognized that nomination by taking part in the process,” Stark says. “The 2020 Golden Apple teacher finalists are dedicated professionals who care deeply about meeting each student where they are and improving their learning outcomes.”
Of course, the NIU seven already feel like winners.
“I just really enjoy every morning. I’m greeted with hugs and all kinds of love from the students,” says Harlem School District 122’s Thompson, who earned her B.S.Ed. in Elementary Education in 2006.
“I also really enjoy working with such a collaborative group of teachers here at the Donald C. Parker Center,” adds Thompson, now in her ninth year there. “Everyone here teaches kindergarten, and it’s nice that we’re all at the same grade level. We can do whole-school projects and celebrations, and we are all excited to share ideas with each other about what’s working for us on a daily basis.”
Kindergarten is a special time, she says.
“This is a year when the children make a tremendous amount of growth. I enjoy the excitement the students have when they’re learning something new, and it’s really exciting to see the students grow socially,” she says. “These kids might all learn at different paces, but they’re all going to get there at some point.”
Her students are not alone in making personal progress, Thompson adds.
“I’ve grown so much from this experience,” she says, “from this opportunity to look at my strength and weaknesses, and to sit down and reflect on my teaching on a daily basis.”
NIU provided Thompson with “a lot of support from the professors and the academic advisors” after she transferred from Rock Valley College.
“I enjoyed the opportunity to observe in other classrooms, just looking at what was best practice,” she says. “Because one of my observations was in a second-grade classroom at Rolling Green Elementary School in Rockford, NIU was very supportive in letting me go back there for my student-teaching.”
Magallanes, a fourth-grade, dual-language teacher at Washington STEM Academy in Belvidere District 100, loves her front-row seat to “watch students make goals and struggle through them to reach their goals.”
The daughter of parents from Mexico shares more than a classroom with her students.
“Most are first-generation Americans, as am I, so we have a very close bond,” says Magallanes, who earned a B.S.Ed. in Elementary Education in 2009. “I have a Spanish language background, and I’m biliterate as well, so I knew dual-language would be a good fit because I understand the students first-hand. I like to help them problem-solve, and to celebrate all their gains with them.”
At NIU, she appreciated her “reflection semester” after returning from student-teaching in Sandwich. “That was so beneficial. I was able to go back, retrace my steps, fix things,” she says.
“NIU does a great job of placing you with people who are similar to you,” adds Magallanes, who returned to school at age 30 after getting married and starting a family. “My cooperating teacher was amazing. I learned a lot from her, which was instrumental in making me a lot more confident going into my first classroom.”
Her place among the Golden Apple finalists pleases her for altruistic reasons.
“Dual-language programs are underrepresented. The recognition feels good,” she says. “Also, it’s a whole-school effort, because we all work so well together. It’s not just me. All of my colleagues are helping me grow into a better teacher.”
Kallstrom, who holds an M.S.Ed. in Early Childhood Education, has taught at Fairview Early Childhood Education Center in Rockford School District 205 for three years. She joined the district in 2011 after starting her teaching career in 2009.
“I love teaching because each day is an adventure: teaching young children to learn to love school, and watching the excitement on their faces when they learn something new, explore something for the first time, make new friends, and so much more,” Kallstrom says.
“Every day is different,” she adds, “and every day is exciting to watch children explore and learn and grow.”
She knows that her responsibility goes beyond the students. “I enjoy meeting the children’s families and supporting the families by encouraging learning at home through play and reading with their child.”
As a graduate student in the College of Education, she appreciated that “NIU was very supportive in offering classes that worked with my schedule.”
“NIU has amazing professors who work with you to prepare you for the future,” says Kallstrom, who holds a bachelor’s degree in finance and political science from another university in Illinois. “I felt after leaving NIU that I was prepared to begin my career in teaching. NIU taught me the foundations of teaching, and I was able to apply that foundation in my first teaching job.”
Danielle Peterson, who teaches in a blended preschool classroom at Prairie Hill Elementary School in the South Beloit-based Prairie Hill District 133, would agree.
“I graduated from NIU in 2006 with my bachelor’s in Special Education and my LBS I certification,” Peterson says. “I feel like my program at NIU prepared me for my first year teaching. I had the knowledge to do well and a wide variety of classroom hours and experiences to feel confident in the classroom.”
Her current place in life also contributes to being effective on the job.
“It starts with having a great relationship with your students, and that is one thing that comes naturally to me,” she says. “I’m at the time of my life where I have kids at home that are the same age as my students at home. Preschoolers are literally my life right now, so I can relate to them and their parents.”
But Peterson believes there is something inherent and organic to success in this career: “Teachers are born – you either love it or you don’t,” she says, “and I love it.”
“Not that I don’t have days where I’m exhausted, or there aren’t times where I think I could’ve done that lesson better, but I love my job every day,” adds the Roscoe, Ill., native. “I get to see my students’ excitement when they recognize a number or letter for the first time. I get to hear all their stories about pretty much everything. I get to help them figure out how they can solve problems when their tower has collapsed for the third time in a row.”
Peterson calls herself “very grateful to be a part of the Golden Apple nomination process as I know there are so many great teachers out there. I get the opportunity to work with a group of them every day.”
And like the others, she says the process “has definitely taken me out of comfort zone and challenged me.
“I think it will only make me a better teacher, which is what we are all striving for,” she says. “It’s been hard because I don’t like extra attention, so I remind myself that it’s bigger than me. It’s about my students, their parents, our school and community and the profession of teaching, and that’s something worth recognizing.”
For Tui Harned, recognition – or, more broadly, the practice of honoring – is something she finds integral to her success as a preschool teacher at District 205’s Nashold Early Childhood Center.
“I really enjoy working with the kids,” says Harned, who earned her M.S.Ed. in Early Childhood Education in 2009. “I respect them. Whatever they bring to the classroom, I honor. I do my best work when I’m spontaneous with them, because they will bring up some fun subjects, and then we just extend the conversation. The authenticity of my classroom is what makes it great.”
Harned, now in her fourth year at Nashold and her eighth in the district, came to teaching as a second career.
She worked as a massage therapist, and then as a lab technician and analytical chemist for a local packaging company, before starting a job at daycare center. That gave her genuine experience with the early childhood age, and after she began substituting in the Rockford schools, she learned about a master’s cohort at NIU.
“My daughter, Maddy, was not even 3,” Harned says. “She was my walking, talking case study for my Early Childhood degree.”
Preschool offers teachers a diversity of students, she says, some coming with no classroom experience thanks to staying at home with caregivers to some not used to being with other children to those deeply familiar with daycare settings.
Abilities also vary greatly, she adds, ranging from those who are “grunting and pointing” to those who are “ready for kindergarten, ready to express their needs and to take their turns with toys.”
“There’s a lot of growth we see,” Harned says. “It’s not just the alphabet. It’s not just numbers.”
During her study at NIU, she appreciated her coursework in scaffolding – “teaching kids where they are, and not forcing your agenda on them” – and lessons in research-based pedagogy to apply.
“Early Childhood is the journey. It’s the skillsets. The milestones,” she says. “If a kid’s not ready to hold a pencil with a pincer grasp, they’re not ready to write letters yet – but they can move from marks to circles to then making letters.”
Meanwhile, Harned’s NIU student-teaching experience in a difficult third-grade classroom in Rockford boosted her confidence.
“That was a tough class,” she says. “I thought, ‘If I can handle this, I can do anything.’ ”