Five of the finalists for the prestigious 2021 Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching and for Excellence in Leadership claim the NIU College of Education in their pedigrees.
NIU alumni Maddi Bodine, Anne McNamara and Virginia Valdez are among the 32 finalists who teach preschool through third grade, a group representing just 4.5% of the 708 nominations received from 67 counties in Illinois.
School principals Melissa Onesto and Martín Da Costa, meanwhile, are two of the nine P-12 finalists selected from 121 nominations.
Once the recipients are surprised later this spring, each receives a $5,000 cash award and becomes a Fellow of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators.
Alan Mather, president of Golden Apple, commended finalists not only for their exemplary work in advancing educational opportunities for students but also for the unyielding determination they displayed during the health and social crises of 2020.
“The resilience teachers have demonstrated while navigating teaching during the global pandemic and through a time of racial awakening, while providing the high-quality education and social-emotional support students need, has been tremendously impactful,” Mather says.
“The school leaders we are recognizing have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to supporting the teachers and students in their building,” he adds. “Their leadership, resilience and commitment to the success of their school communities … has allowed them to continue to prepare students for future success.”
“I love that each day is different,” says Bodine, who also is a graduate of DeKalb High School. “Kids have so much joy, and they’re not plagued by some of the issues that we as adults face. They’re still so happy and innocent, and they get to be so carefree.”
She grew up wanting to teach, “even when I was in kindergarten,” and found her passion for special education during summers working as a counselor at YMCA camp.
Once she began her career, and already fluent in Spanish thanks to a family member from Mexico, Bodine enrolled at NIU to earn a state-required ESL endorsement. The coursework in that program convinced her to pursue the master’s degree with its focus on ESL/Bilingual.
“I do have students who are ESL/Bilingual, and my master’s really helped me to support their language development and connect with them and to connect with their families,” she says. “I think some of the students were surprised when I knew Spanish, and I think it really helped us to understand each other.”
Coping with COVID-19 has presented challenges.
“We do a lot of play-based learning in my class. We do circle-time where the kids can share about their day or share about their weekend. We do some whole-group learning,” she says. “Having the social distance between the kids has definitely added a whole new layer of behavior management. They can’t sit on the floor next to each other. They can’t share materials. But I feel like my students have really done an awesome job maintaining that distance, and they’ve done a really good job keeping their attention on me and on the instruction.”
Finding herself among the Golden Apple finalists is exciting, says Bodine, who does not know the identity of her nominator.
“It came a really good time. This year has been so difficult – both the school year and 2020, which was just so crazy – and this put some wind back in my sails and got the fire going again. It was just encouraging to me, and also humbling that someone believed in me – that someone thought of me like that,” she says.
“I’m very caring, and I take the job really seriously. I don’t view this as something in only do during the day. I try to support the families and help and understand them. That’s my focus,” she adds. “(But) to be thought of as the same caliber as these amazing teachers is so humbling.”
“A parent nominated me, so that’s what’s so meaningful. It makes me feel good,” says McNamara, who teaches children with special needs in kindergarten through second-grade at Countryside Elementary School in Barrington.
Family connections are vital to her work, she says.
“I’m lucky enough to have my students for three years in a row. I get to see their growth, and I get to build relationships not only with my students but with their parents and families as well, so we get to see a lot of the progress together,” she adds.
“Teaching Special Education is something I signed up for – it is my passion – but the parents of my students did not sign up for this, so I love walking along with them on the journey and helping them to see the bright side.”
Like Bodine, McNamara determined her career path early.
“Both of my parents are teachers, so it’s in the blood. I have known since I was a little girl, and I’ve always known it would be special education,” McNamara says. “My dad was a special education teacher, and in seeing kids and adults with special needs in our community, I was just drawn to helping people really live their lives to the fullest. I thought that would be a great job for me.”
Volunteering summers at Kirk School in Palatine and interning there during her senior year at Fremd High School cemented that choice.
Learning under NIU Distinguished Teaching Professor Toni Van Laarhoven and her twin sister, Traci Van Laarhoven-Myers, vocational coordinator at Waubonsie Valley High School, was “phenomenal.”
“Their passion is just contagious,” McNamara says. “They prepared me for everything – the rigors of teaching, of preparing a schedule, of learning all the nitty-gritty about the job, of teaching methods, of working with team, of how to be collaborative. I learned it all.”
During the early days of the pandemic, McNamara delivered hands-on “COVID bins” to the homes of her students to provide glue, pens, markers, beads for stringing and even shaving cream for sensory activities.
She filmed “silly” videos of herself to teach math and counting skills while cooking, or with stories read aloud by her husband, fellow NIU alum Tom, who spoke in his best Elmo voice. She also made sure to create a “predictable routine” virtually, and asked children to hold pictures with “My turn” or “Stop” in front of their laptop cameras.
“Man, was I ready this year,” she says. “I learned a lot from Zooming last year – what worked, what didn’t work and how to make things better.”
Her calm and patient demeanor also helps.
“I love my job. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I love working collaborative with a team. I love learning from other people,” McNamara says. “I also think I have a great deal of empathy to put myself into my students’ shoes and to try to appreciate where they’re coming from.”
With a master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree in International Politics from Georgetown University, Valdez was working in the nonprofit sector as a grant writer.
But as she obtained funding for school-based programs, she wondered about the difference those dollars were making.
“You’re not able to see the impact you have on children and families, and that really was something that was missing for me. I was writing a lot of grants to support these vulnerable populations and, at that moment, I started reflecting on what it was that I really wanted to do,” she says.
“I had been tutoring students, working informally with students at different levels in their educational experience, and I really enjoyed working with children,” she adds. “I decided to change careers.”
The native of Mexico, who was 5 when immigrated to the Chicago suburbs with her family, enrolled at NIU in the federally funded Bilingual Transition to Teaching program.
Now in her 13th year at Jamieson, she knows she made the right choice.
“As soon as I started teaching, I completely loved what I did. I love working with the young children; that’s when I can make the biggest impact in their lives,” Valdez says.
“Children are coming in with a wide range of skills at that time, and for some, it might be their first educational experience,” she adds. “I have the ability to really contribute to their development and success – academically, socially, emotionally – and how they view themselves and how they fit in this world, how they fit in this school and how they fit in this community.”
She also is a role model.
“I, too, am an immigrant,” she says. “For me, it’s really important that they’re able to see someone who’s exactly like them, who spoke a different language. That, to me, is really rewarding. I’m able to give back in a much different way than as someone working for a non-profit.”
During her coursework at NIU, Valdez found early opportunities to practice her new craft.
Her sister, Eulalia, also had changed careers to become a first-grade teacher – and welcomed her sibling as an extra set of hands.
“It was the most amazing experience,” Valdez says. “Everything I was learning at NIU, I could immediately apply to the classroom. I was learning a lot of theory but also a lot of content material, and I was also able to learn from my sister’s best practices.”
Given work at that school as a substitute, and then offered a long-term position filling in for a teacher on leave, Valdez eventually accepted a role there providing Tier 3 supports to students in the Response to Intervention program. Every child left able to read, she says.
Those results mirror her career at Jamieson, where 98% of her students have met or exceeded expectations, and most – 75% – are in the “exceeded” column. She’s also given away more than 10,000 books through her “Books to Keep” program, which provides each child with 40 books during the school year.
“I include all children and believe that all children have the potential to be highly successful,” Valdez says. “If the children can see that, there really are no limits.”
Onesto would agree.
She began her career in education as teacher, focused mostly on reading.
“It’s a very giving profession,” says the sixth-year principal of William J. Butler Elementary School in Lockport, “and if you go into education, you really have to have a passion for reaching kids and making an impact.”
As an administrator, Onesto draws on a collection of NIU College of Education degrees that include an M.S.Ed. in Educational Administration, Director of Special Education Certificate of Graduate Study and an Ed.D. in Curriculum Leadership.
Foundations of Education Professor Kerry Burch, who chaired her dissertation committee, stretched her worldview to encompass issues of social justice and to consider all backgrounds of students from different demographics.
Faculty in her principal preparation program, meanwhile, provided authenticity with “fingers on the pulse.”
“I really enjoyed that NIU used individuals who had real-life experience, whether it was current or if they had retired and decided to teach,” Onesto says. “I remember being told – and I remember this being said clearly – that no matter what decisions you make, they need to be in the best interest of the child.”
COVID-19 highlighted that philosophy as she helped teachers confront the challenges of unexpected remote learning. “I’ve always been a strong supporter of teachers,” she says, “always having the mindset of what we put into teachers they will put into children.”
She and her staff are welcoming back students gradually with resumption of fully in-person attendance planned April 7.
Many already are in the building, she says, as children who require the most services under the Multi-Tiered System of Supports returned early to prepare them for the next grade level.
The same is true for children with emotional needs, for whom the isolation of school from home was overwhelming, and for children from whom English is a second language whose parents also might struggle with the Internet.
Butler Elementary’s success during the pandemic stems from the community culture Onesto has established as well as from her advocacy of viewing children as more than data.
“We are a big team, and we know that we need to be collaborative, work together and support each other,” Onesto says. “Having that foundation established before going into the pandemic has been the social, emotional support our teachers need, and we had that going in.”
Onesto counts herself as a member of the team, one who not only leads with calm, level-headed and trustworthy transparency but also one who works to build leaders.
“We have a very positive building, and it starts at our front office. If I were negative – and I am not – it would affect the culture of the building. It would affect everyone’s comfort level and the comfort level of the children,” she says. “Everyone says they can see the smile under my mask.”
A current student in the Chief School Business Official endorsement program, Da Costa immigrated to the near Southwest Side of Chicago from Uruguay when he was 11. Like many of his fellow Huskies, he became an educator because of that personal experience.
“I’ve seen education put me on a completely different life trajectory, and I’ve seen as a teacher, and I’ve seen as an administrator, the power that education has to transform lives,” he says. “Chicago is a community that faces a lot of challenges with poverty and violence, and so education has opened doors for a different reality, and has allowed me now, as a school principal, to continue to that make that impact to another generation of students.”
He loves his job.
“I feel that I can remove barriers for teachers to be better at their jobs. I can remove barriers for students to access opportunities,” he says. “I can work with our community – with the stakeholders – to create a vision of what education can be and then work to see it through.”
Gaining CSBO skills already is making him a better-rounded administrator he says.
NIU coursework is providing a look into the inner workings of budgeting, resource allocation, facilities management, nutrition programs, transportation, custodial services, equity initiatives and more.
“I recognized that the operations side of things was an area where I could significantly improve, and I saw it as an opportunity to grow. I love learning, and I like to see myself as a lead learner in the building – and, if that’s truly the case, I have to embody that,” Da Costa says. “These are very integral parts of the students’ experience of which most principals have a very limited knowledge.”
COVID-19 gave him the chance to put his curriculum into action immediately, he says, including delivering food to students at home via school buses and ensuring that custodians are keeping the building clean and disinfected.
As Winston Campus students and staff remain in the A group/B group hybrid mode that began last fall, Da Costa is proud of his district allowing families to make their own attendance decisions.
He’s also grateful for those staff members as he uncomfortably allows the spotlight to turn on him.
“I don’t think that I’m a great principal; I think that I have the most amazing school community that I have the privilege to serve. I have a staff that has my unwavering support behind the vision of what we’ve set out to do. We’re on a path to have a school that serves all kids, and we’re reimagining what our school can be,” Da Costa says.
“While I hate that this is a personal recognition, I do appreciate that the hard work we’re doing at Winston is being recognized,” he adds. “This provides not a personal recognition to me but a recognition to the people here – that we’re on the right path. We’re making a difference in the lives of kids.”