Molly Priest

Rockford native, Molly Priest has been teaching for 14 years. For the past nine years, she’s been teaching sixth grade general and environmental science at Eisenhower Middle School, a school she attended in her youth. A student nominator said, “Mrs. Priest is an amazing teacher. She makes learning fun. When you are in her classroom, you feel like you are cared for and safe. She always encourages her students to develop their learning. She is more than a teacher; Mrs. Priest is also a friend, a philosopher and a guide to the students.” Principal Jeff Carlson knows that many students consider her a favorite teacher. He says that it is not just because of her caring relationship with them, but also because of her creative lessons which engage each and every student. “It’s not uncommon to see her standing on a table to demonstrate a topic or to utilize any number of creative strategies to help students remember the objectives she wants them to obtain.” Her efforts do get results. In 2017, she was recognized by both WZOK and WREX-13 with Teacher of the Week awards. In 2018, more than 70-percent of her students met or exceeded their fall to spring MAP goals and in one of her classes, 92-percent of her students met or exceeded their fall to spring MAP goals. Molly lets her students know that mistakes are OK. “My learners have also discovered that wrong answers often lead to great classroom discussions where students are allowed the opportunity to teach one another.” She’s also “honest with students about the mistakes I have made, and I try to model the process in which one can analyze and learn from their mishaps.” Molly genuinely cares about her students. In 2016, when she was diagnosed with cancer, she learned how much they also care about her. Upon her return to class after treatment, she found a giant ribbon covering her wall. The ribbon contained letters from every student and on her desk were pictures and letters of encouragement. Another student who nominated Molly, said, “She puts a smile on my face. She made me love science and is very good at teaching even through difficult times. She really has been through a lot but always manages to find happiness to teach her students.” Molly says, “Alongside my family and friends, my students helped me get through the darkest days of my life and for that I will always be grateful.” Molly encourages goal-setting and positive thinking. Her students reflect on their progress and she brainstorms with them to find ways to achieve their learning goals. They develop confidence and take pride in their achievements. “No matter where a student starts, they are capable of growth.” She enjoys working with progressive, supportive staff and administrators, as well as a diverse student body. “We celebrate and respect our differences, all the while finding ways to connect to one another, as we all have the same goal: to be academically, socially and emotionally prepared for the future.” Susie Lynch, an EMS parent and Booster Club President considers Molly, “a once in a lifetime teacher, the teacher you always dream of, hope your child will have for inspiration, for involvement and for instilling a love of learning.” Molly, in concluding her portfolio shared that she wants her students to love and value learning as much as she does. “I am hopeful that I am making a positive difference in the lives of my students and our Rockford community. My ultimate goal is for my students to be proud to say they grew up in Rockford too!”

Sheila Morrall

Sheila Morrall of Poplar Grove has been teaching in the Belvidere School District for 23 years, 16 at Belvidere South Middle School, where she teaches Spanish to students in 6th-8th grades. Assistant Principal, Linda Colson, says that Sheila’s “excitement and enthusiasm for learning is contagious not only for her students, but also for her colleagues. She finds ways to make her lessons engaging and memorable for the students.” In fact, one day, Colson saw the students in Sheila’s class singing a song in Spanish to help with vocabulary retention. She also shared that Sheila “builds relationships with her students and it is evident she cares about the whole child. In her classroom, students come first and content comes second.” Sheila agrees. “It is not the teaching of my topic that changes things, it is the connections and the relationships that are built that teach our youth how to be productive citizens in our world.” Sheila has been training, translating and teaching on mission trips to Belize for the past five years. Cathy Dulgar of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Belvidere has been on those trips and sees the impact Sheila makes. “This is a teacher that takes her gifts and talents to make a difference in the lives of those she meets along her path.” Sheila’s students come from various socio-economic backgrounds. They are of varying ethnicities. Some have medical issues or language barriers. But she says, “regardless of our personal differences, we learn together and help each other grow and strive in my classroom. I love that each person is unique and has talents and abilities that no one else has.” Sheila knows that as her students and their individual needs change, her teaching style has had to change as well. She sets high expectations but helps her students set plans to accomplish their goals. And the students join her in assessing and reassessing their work, formally and informally. Sheila says that classroom technology changes the dynamic of the room. “Students become leaders through their technology strengths as they teach everyone in the classroom, including me, new things that they are finding. They have a ‘can do’ attitude and know that if they can’t, it is just ‘not yet.’” Despite any challenges the profession of teaching may present, Sheila has seen so many rewards that keep her motivated to keep learning, keep teaching and keep watching her students succeed. 

Mike Manke1

“Mr. Manke = pure dedication. He's the first teacher to arrive and the last teacher to leave. You'll see him at all kinds of MS science events and working with kids after school. After the academic clubs are complete, Mr. Manke works at many of the athletics events held at school for both the middle and the high school. However, it is not just the time he puts in. Mr. Manke makes connections with his students. He is able to connect to kids that many others before him could not do. To top it all off, his students learn a TON about science from him”! Clearly this parent who nominated Mike Manke had a child who valued the time spent in his class! Manke, of Machesney Park, has 39 years of teaching experience. He’s in his 13th year at Rockford Christian Middle School, where he teaches 7th grade physical science. When he started teaching there, the school did not offer any science extracurriculars. Now there are middle and high school robotics teams, middle and high school science olympiad teams, a rocketry club and a high school competitive team. These teams compete at local, state, national, and international competitions, under Manke’s guidance. He is the science department chair, director of the Rockford Christian Science Olympiad Invitation; Coordinator for Science Extracurricular Robotics Teams, Science Olympiad Teams, Rocketry Team and Science Club and much more. Stephen Postma, chief Technologist and Innovation Leader with Sysmex America Inc. in Mundelein, has worked with Manke for 17 years to help guide the development, creation and execution of innovative educational programs. He pointed out that Manke led students to many achievements, such as the Middle School Innovation program’s second place finish in the WORLD in 2013. Also in 2013, he helped a team write and obtain a U.S. Patent for an invention. But of course, his primary focus is on his students and their growth. He realizes that each student is unique in how they process and learn, so he varies his class presentations and incorporates lab work, homework and projects into his classes in addition to tests. Lab time is often his best time to check in with each student to see how they are doing, academically and personally. “It gives me another opportunity to let them know that I care not only about if they did their work, but about them as a person.” Sometimes personal issues must be addressed with the whole class. “I never want to face my students again with tears in my eyes, telling them they will never see a classmate again because of a senseless act of violence.” But by Manke’s sharing his grief, his students could see how important they are to him. They felt safe to join him as they started to heal together. Manke strives to let each student know how unique and special they are. He is a lifelong learner, always searching for ways to teach and motivate more effectively. Principal Drew Popejoy commented, “Mike does an amazing job helping kids discover the amazing world of science.” And he loves it. Manke says, “With every new day, I look forward to watching my students marvel at the science of their world, from the Milky Way Galaxy with its trillion stars, to the effects of model rockets launched on Earth as they dream those secret dreams of reaching distant places. I am humbled at the privilege of teaching these youth. It is an honor to enable them to see the beauty of their world and everything beyond its great vastness.” 


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."