I recently got back in touch with my art teacher from high school. I was an introverted little boy who was considered to be an old soul, so adults were the only ones I could relate to, and my art teacher was probably one of my best friends at the time. It is amazing the positive influence that teachers can have: They are the safety net between your family, your church and your community. They are an integral part of that village that it takes to raise a child.
While I recommend that people personally reach out to the teachers and mentors who have shaped their lives, it is awesome to see people recognized publicly for their selfless dedication to their students. One such tireless educator is Colleen McKenna, a fourth-grade teacher at Salmon P. Chase Elementary School (2021 N. Point Street) in Logan Square.
Last month, McKenna received the 2020 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. She said was “shocked” when she heard the announcement during a video conference. The Golden Apple Award receives more than 730 teacher nominations from over 60 Illinois counties; Colleen is one of just 10 award recipients statewide.
“There were so many happy tears, and I couldn’t believe they were all there for me,” Mckenna said. “It was incredibly moving. I am so grateful and excited to be a part of this truly amazing fellowship.”
McKenna, a National Board-certified teacher, has taught in deaf education for the past 15 years while pursuing a doctorate in special education leadership. She also enjoys volunteering on her own time, teaching sign language to students who do not have hearing impairments.
Like so many teachers nowadays, McKenna is adapting her hands-on teaching style to online learning.
“There are so many teachers deserving of recognition out there and who work so hard every day. I kept thinking, ‘Why me?’ I just felt, and still feel, so very appreciative. During the call, it was so overwhelming when I could not only see all of my colleagues on the video call but then the Golden Apple, my students, friends and then my family there … I really lost it.”
Golden Apple, an Illinois nonprofit, provides financial support and mentorship programs for quality teachers in all fields across Illinois. Golden Apple Award recipients are seasoned teachers, recognized and nominated by students, parents and their peers, the organization said in a press release. The Golden Apple recipients play an important role in mentoring future educators, Golden Apple said.
“I always felt that I wanted to get into teaching for as long as I can remember,” McKenna said. “Growing up, I was fortunate to have multiple influential mentors in my life. They had a huge impact on me as a person, on who I was then and who I am now. That started the desire for me to become a teacher and built the eagerness to want to help and mentor others.”
When educational projects near to her heart require additional funding, McKenna works to secure private donations and online funding through the DonorsChoose fundraising platform. In one recent project, McKenna spearheaded and funded a Learning Garden. There, the school’s entire student body can learn about gardening, health and nutrition while working and maintaining the garden.
Over 1,000 teacher positions sit unfilled in the state, mostly in majority-minority and low-income school districts, according to Advanceillinois.org, 2020. So teachers are in high demand.
Northwestern University has partnered with Golden Apple for over 30 years and provides a Spring Sabbatical to award recipients, who will go on to mentor incoming teachers, at no cost.
“Exemplary teachers create an extraordinary ripple effect that benefits students, transforms schools and strengthens communities,” said Golden Apple President Alan Mather. “We look forward to Colleen McKenna joining our mission to prepare the next generation of highly effective teachers for Illinois schools through our Scholars and Accelerators programs. Our award recipients play a major role in Golden Apple’s efforts to make a material difference in resolving the teacher shortage crisis across Illinois.”
I asked McKenna what advice she would give to new teachers starting their careers. She said, “Trust yourselves and go into teaching knowing you are in this for a reason. You have a purpose and you will make big differences in young people’s lives that will help them develop into who they will become one day.”
She added that teachers should know they have a lot of support. “You may not have all of the answers right away — nobody does — but I would tell you to find a support system: colleagues that you can go to for support, advice and insight,” McKenna said. “These people are going to be the ones that help you through those first few years and will help you to better understand the teacher that you want to be for your students. Teaching is a community, so start building yours right from the beginning. It will make all the difference.”
Speaking of support systems, let’s all congratulate McKenna on Golden Apple’s and Salmon P. Chase’s social media pages. And maybe find a classroom project to sponsor on DonorsChoose.org. Teachers need all the help and appreciation they can get.
Featured photo and videoconference photo by Golden Apple.
School photo by Erik Island.