Amanda Newmes of Roscoe has taught high school science in the Belvidere school district for 17 years, the past 10 at Belvidere North. Though she had initially planned to be a doctor, she came to the conclusion that medical school was not for her and set an appointment with an advisor to guide her to a different path. To her surprise, he told her that he was glad her previous plan didn’t work out! But he went a step further by telling her, “You have a gift of communicating with people. You help others before you help yourself. Your talent would not be used in the medical field; you need to be a teacher.” After teaching a lesson at the advisor’s son’s school, she knew he was right. David Carson, assistant superintendent of Belvidere Community Unit School District 100 says, “Amanda is a bold teacher who seeks to deeply transform each of her students as well as the system in which she teaches. I have seen her not only talk about desired changes in education with her colleagues, but live and model the changes we should make to provide a high quality education for all of our students.” Areas in which Amanda has been at the front of innovation in the school and the district include flexible seating, blended learning classes and standards-based grading. Amanda says, “Just scraping by is not an option in my class. I will push each student to challenge themselves and find the confidence to try something new.” She encourages student ownership, which results in better student engagement. An example of how she helps students discover their passions and ways to act on them comes from her biology class. Each student was asked to write down something they had always wanted to build, study or create. She meets with each student individually to guide them to the resources they need to accomplish the project they desire, then they take it from there. She is more a facilitator than the focus in her classes. By design. “I do not want to grade 30 of the same project. But how powerful is it for students to see inspired, passion-filled projects that are student choice? Students do not want vanilla ice cream every day they come to class. That gets old and redundant. Instead, I try to provide the 31 flavors and let them choose the toppings to mix up learning so that it is exciting and students do not even notice that they are learning.“ A former student who nominated Amanda shared: “She instills the love of learning in each and every one of her students, and pushes them to achieve whatever goal they want in life. I now work professionally in the medical field and I know this would not be possible without her help.” Another student shared a three-page letter of recommendation for Amanda, full of examples of how she supports and encourages her students in and out of the classroom. “She is doing great things for the community, the school district and the life of her students. You can see that in her work, her projects, her achievements, and in her family. But mostly, you can see it in her students.” To Amanda, “it is [her] students who continuously provide me with passion, motivation, and energy to make each day an epic day”! 

Chelsea Pruitt1  

"Do one thing every day that makes you happy." This motto is on a sign in the home of Chelsea Pruitt of Roscoe, who has been teaching English Language Arts at Harlem Middle School for nine years. Several former students nominated her, all mentioning how they enjoyed her sense of humor. Chelsea says, “I strive to make learning fun, even when the content is not enjoyable for them, they are engaged and willing to learn.” Principal Matt Cascio shared in his recommendation letter that she “does an incredible job of being a great team member planning and coordinating the most enjoyable Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports incentive days and trips a middle school student could experience.” Though she often hears in conferences that the students are in middle school and it’s time to step back to let them increase their senses of responsibility, Chelsea’s goal is to remind students’ families how important their support is to their education, even if they don’t always show it. “I believe middle school is when parents/guardians need to step in and be more involved than ever. Their students are going through so many changes physically, mentally, socially and academically” at this time. This is also a prime time to incorporate diversity discussions in the classroom, as these students are starting to form beliefs and opinions about our culture and society. Chelsea learns about each student’s background and encourages them to share and learn about each other in talks about race, gender, religion and socioeconomic status. She insists everyone show respect to each other, to teachers and to anyone they encounter. She makes sure students know that her classroom is a safe place to talk, question and share. Chelsea is also devoted to her school and peers. She’s an active member of the Literacy Team and has been a Professional Development Cadre. She is now pioneering an ELA Summer Skill Building Program in response to seeing the summer math program’s success. Fellow finalist and peer, Flori Zeqiri, tells us that Chelsea is a resource for other teachers; she never lets her students or teachers down. “You will not find a person who has a greater work ethic, who puts her students first, and is a wonderful colleague and collaborator.” Chelsea constantly asks herself how she can provide the best education and knowledge for those around her: the middle school students, the high school dance team she coaches, the children’s church class she writes curriculum for, and of course, her own three children. Remember her motto sign? Chelsea says she feels lucky to say that “one of my ‘things’ is getting to go to work as a middle school teacher. It undoubtedly makes me thankful and overjoyed. It is an unbelievable honor to be entrusted with the lives and education of so many young people every day.” 


Mark J Peterson Golden Apple photo

Mark Peterson of Algonquin is in his sixth year of teaching Reading and ESL at Rockford’s Auburn High School. With 12 years of teaching experience, he has taught an assortment of English content classes: speech, Reading Intervention, Writing, World Literature, Film Criticism and more. Eileen Morrissey, an art and special education teacher at West Middle School, worked at Auburn with Peterson for two years. She recommended him, writing that he is a huge reason why test scores increased each year. “I have witnessed students who hated to read develop a love for reading.” Barbara Dowdakin, reading specialist at Auburn, shared, “Although students in need of reading intervention at the high school level have faced many years of defeat, Mark has created a success-oriented educational setting that reflects both compassion and vision.” June Cavarretta knows Peterson as a former peer at Dundee-Crown High School, but also is the parent of a student he reached despite her daughter’s usual lack of interest in school. She says, “he was particularly effective with the harder-to-reach students. He had a way of challenging them to challenge themselves, of encouraging them to stretch their minds and open them to new ways of thinking, while treating them with dignity and respect, and, maybe most important of all, never losing his sense of humor through it all.” Clearly, Peterson is a champion for students others may have let flounder. They have behavioral issues, broken and low-income families, learning disabilities. Their first language is not English; learning frustrates them. Yet they show up. You might wonder why Peterson’s students are so important to him. He says he can connect with these students because he was one of them. Despite all the odds (raised by a single mother of 4 who was low income and worked night shifts), he and his siblings all went to college thanks to the support they received from family members, teachers and coaches. They were raised to value education and respect teachers. When Peterson was initially just teaching English classes, he found that his students “were still learning to read, not reading to learn.” To meet their needs, he pursued a master’s degree in literacy and became a reading specialist. Beyond this endeavor, he saw the need to reach students struggling with basic English proficiency. Peterson applied for and was named a 2015 Project DREAMS Scholar by Northern Illinois University. He earned his ESL endorsement through the free year of graduate level ESL classes that came with that scholarship. In addition to much assessment, relationship building and one-on-one monitoring of his students, Peterson finds communicating with their family members exceptionally rewarding, for everyone involved. There’s nothing like meeting parents at conferences who share that they had to meet the teacher their child keeps mentioning and who transformed their child from someone not interested in reading or school into someone who reads and talks about books at home! Peterson also values working with fellow reading teachers and his ESL students’ content teachers, even requesting that they have lunch time together to review challenges, successes and suggestions. “Good teaching requires collaborating well”! 

Amanda McCallister

Amanda McCallister “Changed my mindset to believe I can graduate.” High praise from a students who nominated her for the Golden Apple! Amanda, of Rockford, has 11 years of teaching experiences, the last seven at Roosevelt CEC, where she teaches Math. Principal Morgan Gallagher, who has worked in public education for 17 years, says that as department chair, Amanda has led her peers in adjusting instruction to individual student needs through assessments and data-driven improvement cycles. He says, “As a result, in the last two years, the number of credits earned by students has increased more than 60-percent and in turn, the number of graduates has increased more than 40-percent.” Jennifer Macek, Director of MTSS, Rockford Public Schools, said, “Amanda knows math, but more importantly, she knows how to teach math.” Amanda feels that, “the purpose of math education is not about using formulas or following a specific pattern; it is about training the mind to think logically and justify your work.” The students in Amanda’s classes often have failed multiple math classes and need individual attention to boost their confidence and encourage them to keep reaching to achieve their learning goals. The family supporting their academic growth is as likely to be a grandparent, aunt, friend, sibling or significant other as a parent. These students need to know their teacher is trustworthy, despite whatever challenges they’re dealing with, before they are willing to listen and make an effort. “Many teenagers do not want to go to a parent for advice. [They turn to] social media, friends and the television to help them figure it out. I make it known to my students that I care about them as a whole person, not just their math skills.” By talking with students about family and relationship situations, job problems, anxiety and budgeting, and providing consistent praise and support, Amanda shows them just how much she cares. Another student nomination reflected Amanda’s commitment to her students: “She has always gone above and beyond to help me succeed in school and has motivated me to keep going and finish no matter how many struggles I faced. I appreciate her very much.” Many times, students come to Roosevelt without bare essentials needed to succeed. Amanda applies for grant money to offer things like food, hygiene products, calculators and a classroom charging station. Additional ways she goes above and beyond have included tracking down an absent student on Facebook to learn the student had been kicked out and needed help reconciling with family; using prep time to mentor and tutor students; watching a student’s child while the student finished remaining credits needed to graduate; and creating a personal finance workshop. She has also put all her courses on the LMS PowerSchool Learning system so that students who need a distance learning option, have one. And she always finds alternative ways for students to achieve their learning targets to accommodate their unique backgrounds, learning styles, skills and interests. Macek confirmed that Amanda “works with her team to ensure that all students have the support they need to be successful, not just in her classes, but in school and in the community.”

Melissa Wolf 2

Melissa Wolf of Roscoe has been teaching theater arts at her alma mater, Rockford's Guilford High School for 13 years, in the very room that "sparked [her] curiosity and fervor for the Arts." The Rockford native took off for New York after high school to be a working actor, but returned to Illinois after 9-11 and student debts started to take a toll. She thought she'd take a job, earn some cash, then head to Chicago for performance opportunities. Then ... she met a guy. Melissa came back to Rockford, took a retail job, and, on a whim, joined a co-worker who was completing a master's degree at the local university. After high school, college had held no interest, but now, Melissa was ready. She earned her teaching certificate to help others like her. "A safe space to be inspired, be present, and be yourself and have the time of your life is what I am doing my best to provide students. I think I might have been destined to do this." Even if her students do not pursue acting or teaching drama post-high school, they learn that the confidence, communication and speaking skills learned in Melissa's theater classes apply to "real life." These skills are essential not just in auditions, but also in job interviews and presentations. However, over the past 13 years, 75 of her students have been accepted to 33 university theatre programs, all with scholarships. Jonathan Sleger, retired technical theatre director for RPS205, said that since Melissa was named department chair nine years ago, the department has tripled "in both the number of classes being filled and the number of students filling them. This is a testament to not only how respected and loved she is by her students, but also how much the administration recognizes her quality work." School counselor Donna Pauley commends Melissa, saying, "Her casts and classes cut across racial, ethnic, gender and ability groups. On her stage and in her class, rival student groups manage to co-exist. Students with learning issues and physical disabilities are able to participate and flourish. In shows, she casts kids who have never participated in extracurricular activities and, in some cases, who rarely attended school, making it mandatory that they show up to school on a regular basis in order to be eligible for her production. In addition to teaching and directing performances, Melissa supervises student teachers, revises district curriculum and has advised a senior class, as well as the Drama, Glee and Pokemon clubs. Oh, and she married that guy. 

Jean Chambers

Jean Chambers of Rockton is in her 21st year as an English teacher at Hononegah Community High School. A former student, Neshua Aguilar, wrote in her recommendation letter that although she had a great year in eighth grade -- her first year studying in an American school -- she was terrified of starting high school. Particularly of taking an advanced English class. She found, though, that Mrs. Chambers made her, "academically speaking, fearless." Neshua's anxiety was put to rest. Not because the course was easy by any means, but because of the way Mrs. Chambers teaches. "She transformed a predisposed notion I had that the classroom environment can't be both fun and efficient at the same time. Every day had a purpose, and every day, Mrs. Chambers pushed us to achieve that purpose." Jean's students know she wants to help them reach their full potential, but that she also understands that everyone's pace to reach their individual goals is different. She evaluates each student and monitors their progress, adjusting lessons and spending more time with students as needed. Before starting the school year, she reflects on the past year and tweaks content based on the past year's challenges and successes. She also enthusiastically looks for new content and new teaching methods to keep teenage students interested and to keep fueling her passion to teach. For example, before studying a survival unit, she researched and shared footage of the rescue of the Thai soccer players to show the theme's relevancy. She also looks for diversity in content by assigning text by both male and female authors and authors of diverse cultures and backgrounds. "I use literature to promote acceptance and diversity. We all have our own stories -- what makes us special, unique. Teaching is a great place to foster the value of diversity and meet the individual needs of students based on their diverse background." Kelley Beard has spent time with Jean when she was student teaching, as a new teacher and now as a peer. She raves about how willing Jean is to spend time with students, their parents and fellow teachers to help them grow academically, professionally and personally. Beard says, "She somehow manages to do all of this with four children of her own at home. And she doesn't drink coffee. She's a superhero." 

Daniel Foster

Daniel Foster of Roscoe has been a band teacher at Belvidere High School for eight years. His nominator said, "As an advocate of the music arts, Dan helps fuel a passion for music and appreciation to his students." These students come with varying backgrounds and degrees of ability and interest. He strives to meet them where they are, yet to also provide opportunities for them to advance. This can mean one-on-one assistance outside school hours for those who struggle or seeking outside professionals to work with those excelling beyond their peers."Academic growth is only a part of what I am committed to as a teacher; I also strive to help develop my students with respect to their whole selves." He has led students to growth opportunities by trying new instruments and by taking on leadership roles. His students can even take ownership of their work by helping plan content and musical selections. "There are a multitude of students who just needed to know they belonged to a family of musicians during times of great duress in their personal lives. For these students, the sub curriculum of 'being human first' becomes just as important as whether or not they can play a chromatic scale." The fruit of his and his students' efforts are publicly visible through performances which are held at many community events, graduations, schools, parades and musicals. They also participate in several area competitions, after which, they reflect upon what was learned and how they can improve. BHS Choral director Mark Miller, who has worked with Foster for two years, noted how Foster has helped guide the Performing Arts department to becoming a unit that collaborates exceptionally well. "Yes, he works tirelessly to create high-caliber performances with his bands, but he never loses sight amidst the chaotic rehearsal schedules of his commitment to keep the students the central focus of every lesson." Principal Billy Lewis also recommended Foster by saying, "If the goal of classroom learning is for students to apply their learning, utilize creativity and be part of something larger than they could be on their own, then Mr Foster meets this goal time and again."

Jessica Gerond

Jessica Gerrond of Rockford has 22 years of teaching experience, the past 14 at Rockford's East High School. Both her mother and grandmother were teachers. Her mother, in fact, was also a nominee this year! Jessica took her first sign language class at the Center for Sight and Hearing before middle school and her career goal was set. However, she says, "Deafness is a low incidence disability, so there are very few jobs." She struggled to find a position teaching deaf and hard of hearing students. All her students have IEPs. Many of their parents do not know sign language. Her students often live with little to no language until they first start attending school, usually at age three. Reading is often a major challenge. Jessica says, "many of my students have been taught along the way that they are 'behind' their hearing peers in skills and knowledge. I believe my students are all capable of learning like everyone else; they just need additional support and a different modality of communication. By building their self-confidence, through relationships and a safe learning environment, I am able to present my students with higher level work that other teachers felt they could not achieve." Jessica and her students also developed a "Buddies" program to build relationships between special education and general education students. The club hosts many activities to promote these friendships. Its members learn about different disabilities and the importance of compassion. East is now recognized as one of very few Special Olympics Unified Schools. To reach and teach her students, Jessica is constantly learning. She is trained in restorative practices, informed trauma care and working with at-risk adolescents. She is also a Special Olympics coach and collaborates with the Rockford Ice Hogs, whose players presented an anti-bullying campaign for the Buddies Club. Just 20 teachers were selected to participate in the inaugural Rockford University-RPS205 cohort of in-service teachers pursuing their M.Ed. in Urban Education. Jessica was determined to be among them to gain knowledge that would benefit her students. Her research proposal was accepted and her work presented at the Mid-Western Educational Research Association's annual conference in October in Cincinnati. R.U. Education Dept. and Unit Head, Dr. Jean Swindle, is one of her professors. She says, "I have witnessed how Jessica's clear and high expectations, innovative teaching practices and inclusive classroom have brought deaf and hard-of-hearing students together ... she has been able to create a welcoming community [of learners] among students who often feel distanced from their own families due to their exceptionalities." Jessica says of the program, "I have gained so much knowledge of teacher leadership, strategies to use in urban settings, that it is acceptable to challenge current practices if it means bettering our school and student learning, and I have confidence to be an agent of change in RPS." 

Jeff Pettera1

For 32 years, Jeff Pettera of Rockford has been teaching at Christian Life High School, where he says, “Teaching the kids about making right choices is one of the primary goals.” This year, Pettera is at the helm of Biology, Anatomy, Chemistry and Physics classes for 9th through 12th graders there. He states in his portfolio that he also sets high academic and behavior standards because that is what he expects of himself. With such a long tenure at CLS, Pettera has had the unique experience of being connected to Michael Hoekstra as his student, peer and now principal! Hoekstra commends Pettera for finding ways to make a tough subject seem approachable and for fostering the willingness in students to serve the community. Pettera creates many opportunities for students to participate in fundraisers and activities that foster their senses of respect, compassion, leadership and community. Among their endeavors, his students ring bells for Salvation Army and feed breakfast to homeless people at the Rockford Rescue Mission. A student who appreciates Pettera’s approach to teaching science nominated him for the Golden Apple, saying, “Mr. Pettera could always make us laugh. I could always look forward to his class, knowing I was going to learn something new and have fun while doing it. He made a lot of lessons interactive so we could remember it better.” Pettera says that his purpose in life is to help others attain their dreams. “I do whatever I can to help students achieve their goals. This not only includes educating them in science, but also writing letters of recommendation for college admissions and scholarship opportunities. The excitement and joy they bring when they tell me how much scholarship money they received is invigorating.” Todd Wellens, parent of former students, shared in his recommendation letter, “Jeff’s focus has always been science and both my children have really benefitted from his wonderful way of bringing these subjects to life.” He added that both his children had received large scholarships to Drake University in Pharmacy and Physics, thanks to what they learned from Pettera. In his portfolio, Pettera stated, “My true legacy lies with the many doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers and entrepreneurs I have educated and who are now, as adults, impacting the lives of many others.”

Jenna Osar

Jennifer Osar of Cherry Valley teaches math to students in 10th-12th grades at Harlem High School in Machesney Park. She was nominated by one of her peers, who said, “Her desire to stay on top of the latest ways to teach and engage students is an inspiration to those she works with.” In fact, her professional development over the last five years has included not just math or technology workshops like “common Core Mathematics for All Teachers” and “Technology in the 21st Century Classroom,” but also student-focused courses about bullying, autism, child abuse, mental disorders in children, suicide prevention, ADHD, and trauma. She received 20-year recognition from the district and has been named a Teacher of the Week by local media. Recently, Jennifer became a grader for the Illinois Science Assessment to learn how math is used as a science and engineering practice as part of the Next Generation Science Standards. She shares in her portfolio that teaching has changed significantly during the 20-plus years she’s been in the field. For one, students now are in an “exclamation point type of world,” in which they “communicate with an urgency and emphasis that my generation often finds exhausting.” This mindset delivers a challenge to teachers of all subjects. Jennifer constantly searches for new technology and methods to connect with cellphone-focused students and to show them math’s relevance to their lives. Also, her grading system has evolved to a skill-based one, in which students and their parents can see specifically what skills have improved and what continue to be challenges. Jennifer encourages students to share their approaches to problem solving and to discuss them freely with the class. “Listening to other ways of solving problems seems to be a skill that is diminishing in our society. Math is a safe way to teach this skill.” By sharing different ways to solve a problem, her students are able to see that their way isn’t lesser; it’s just different. Through this understanding, they gain confidence in themselves, learn to communicate their views and appreciate the diversity in their midst. Jennifer is proud of her district and her department, which allows teachers to try new things even if they make mistakes or things don’t go as planned. She says that this atmosphere of safety and acceptance “brings out some of the best abilities in my colleagues” and “keeps me challenged and always wanting to improve my teaching.” Principal Ronald “Terrell” Yarbrough stated in his recommendation letter that, “She doesn’t expect or need any praise for what she does for students. She simply wants to make sure that everyone is successful.” 

Candice Cortese

Candice Cortese of DeKalb is in her 14th year of teaching math content at Hononegah Community High School. This year, she is teaching Algebra, Pre-Calculus and Trigonometry. While those subjects can be daunting for some students, the student who nominated her said, “She is really good at breaking down complicated subjects into steps.” Devoted to the success of her students, Candice has developed curriculum for the PLATO program, a credit recovery system for students who have fallen behind in math credits. She is quick to volunteer to work with these students before school and during the summer to get them on track to graduation. Matt Simpson, Mathematics Department Chair, shared that Hononegah ranked in the top 50 of all Illinois high schools in SAT scores the past school year and that her contributions played a role in that achievement. During class, Candice’s students work in groups. She circulates, talking to each group so they can see her interest in them. She says, “I know that this has affected my students, because I do not have many discipline problems and students are actively engaged in the lessons.”  Her students are confident and have built relationships both with her and with their fellow students. She adds, “Too many of today’s students are technology-focused and isolated. Building peer relationships and communication skills is just as important as learning the quadratic formula.” Candice also realizes the importance of working with her peers and her students’ families. She regularly emails parents about what students are working on and asks for feedback about math they use at their jobs. This year, she received feedback from a local police officer and a financial planner who gave her ideas about how to demonstrate ways math is used outside of school. She also tries to learn about her students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and any learning challenges they may have. A teacher in the special education department helps with insight into students with learning disabilities. Candice’s days are long and full. Even with her 45-mile drive to school, she’s always among the first teacher in the building, usually two hours before class time. When she returns home, she is a volunteer coach for her kids’ youth soccer, Little League baseball and girls softball programs.  She is a content team leader and Professional Learning Community committee member who was a finalist for the Those Who Excel Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2015-2016. Hononegah principal, Eric Flohr said in his recommendation letter, “Ms. Cortese is the kind of educator that every principal wants inspiring children and guiding staff to the next level.”