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.” 

Flori Zeqiri

Flori Zeqiri of Rockford teaches 7th grade Social Studies at Harlem Middle School, where she has taught for 17 years. She immigrated to America in 1984, when she was just eight years old and in the middle of second grade. Though angry at her parents at the time for making her leave Albania, she now says, “they knew something I didn’t: education is the great equalizer.” Flori was fortunate to land in the classroom of a teacher who welcomed, accepted and believed in the young girl who knew no English at the time. “From that moment, I knew I wanted to be a teacher and give my students the safety, acceptance and love she gave me.” She learned quickly that teaching is not as easy as that teacher had made it look! It took more than words to convince her students of her belief in them. She found success through sharing her love of competition. Her students compete in walk-a-thons and other fundraisers, using the team motto, “Champions Find a Way.” She watches them evolve as the year progresses and they start believing they can accomplish anything they set their minds to, in school and in life. One student who nominated her said, “This teacher inspires me. The only teacher. She makes me want to come to school every day. She also makes me feel like I can do anything that I put my mind to.” Flori says, “In the end, my number one goal as an educator is to see my students flourish. My students know that I will be there for them no matter what. I consider it an honor when one of my students lets me know that they have a home game, then waits patiently to hear I’ll be there to watch. I want my students to know that having teachers who care is something they should expect.” Part of caring about her students is finding the best ways to recognize and reach the diverse students she teaches. As a student, Flori would light up at any mention of Albania, so she knows students need to see examples reflective of their races and cultures; therefore, she teaches about our country’s historically diverse makeup and introduces them to many perspectives. “Showing a video about Madame CJ Walker and watching the face of my African-American student’s face light up because she saw someone who looked like her doing amazing things in history is priceless.”

Jeremy Edwards

“I teach Biology but the students are learning so much more.” Jeremy Edwards of Woodstock teaches freshman Accelerated Biology and Advanced Placement Biology at Belvidere High School. He has 15 years of teaching experience in science education, the last five being at BHS. Early in his tenure at BHS, Jeremy started to hate going to work, where he would present material to a class, review it, run a lab to reinforce learning, then test students to see if they remembered it. He considered leaving the field. Then he discovered Certifications, which turned his classes, his teaching and his attitude around. “My commitment is now to developing students with research, presentation and critical thinking skills to guide them as they progress throughout their academic career. “ He presents questions and challenges, then provides resources for his students to discover the answers for themselves. The students own their learning process and present the material to him in their own way to show that they have mastered the topic. Each Certification is tied to a Next Generation Science Standard. Jeremy also helps students discover their learning patterns, helping them more successfully organize their research. BHS Principal Billy Lewis recommends Edwards, saying, “His vision and influence are ever-expanding, to the benefit of both staff and students of our school.” Jeremy is committed to continuous improvement and leads beyond his classroom. He was selected by the district superintendent to showcase his student-centered model in a video sent to all district staff. More and more teachers are using his example to create their own version of Certifications specific to their subjects. He is currently the science department content leader, school improvement team member, advanced placement committee member and biology team curriculum representative. He leads the Biology Professional Learning Community. Jeremy has presented certifications at the district school improvement days, at the 2018 Raising Student Achievement Conference in Chicago and has submitted a proposal to present at the National Advanced Placement Conference in the summer. Jeremy has joined other teachers in BUCS Abroad to travel the world with students, allowing him to increase parental involvement, collaborate with teachers from other fields and help students learn about different. Oh, and he’s also the head boys golf coach. As one of his student nominators says, “Mr. Edwards helped us become super independent. He also made us realize that we can do things on our own and he is truly helping us. By teaching the way he does, we can tell that he is really passionate about his job and that he also cares about his students enough to carry a conversation.” 

Betsy Young

Have you had a teacher mark the birthdays of all her students on her calendar so she could sing to them on their special days? Betsy Young’s students have! The choir, piano lab and band teacher at Harlem Middle School with 28 years of teaching experience previously taught general music and English/Spelling/Literature. Her dedication to students and to music education is not limited to the music room. She received Peer Pride recognition at HMS for compiling digital music and adjusting sound levels for athletic and fine arts events; led a fundraising campaign to replace sound equipment; represents general education teachers in IEP meetings; and performs in local events with Rock Valley College Community bands and the Rockford Wind Ensemble. She provides help not just to her students, but also to all the Harlem School District’s music teachers so they can attend the ILMEA Middle School Band Festival. In his recommendation letter, RVC Band director, Erik Oberg said, “Betsy believes in teaching students more than just the notes; she strives to teach students the intrinsic value of learning and trying their best simply because it is the right thing to do.” Her efforts to communicate student highs and lows and ways parents can help don’t go unnoticed. One parent nominated Betsy, commenting that she makes Middle School a safe place to grow for students who love music. Clearly, what Betsy does makes a difference. Early in her career, Betsy felt she had found a school home where she was nurtured and could nurture her students. She created the music program. She was named Teacher of the Year. The school, parents and students were happy with her work. But, unbeknownst to her, this private school was on the brink of financial failure. At the end of the first semester of her third year, Betsy was told that because of finances, the school was cutting her position immediately. Two days later, an anonymous donor agreed to pay her salary for the remainder of the school year! “The lesson I learned was affirmation of my value as a teacher. Victories like this, along with all the smaller daily successes, keep me ignited to dream big for my students and what they can accomplish.” 

Rob Ullrich

To Rob Ullrich of Rockford, “commitment in education is synonymous with ‘never give up.’” His students sense his commitment, as one of them nominated him for being “always happy and ready to teach.” Ullrich has taught both special and regular education classes as well as multiple subjects. He has spent the majority of his eight years of teaching experience at North Boone, first at the high school, now at the middle school, where he teaches seventh grade social studies. Jamie Pearce, NBMS principal, says that the passion he shows for Social Studies is second to none. Through teaching special education classes, Ullrich’s strengths in collaboration, patience and empathy blossomed. Nicholas Augustine, a peer at NBHS, stated in his recommendation letter that Ullrich “is an honest and caring teacher who promotes a culture of learning all leaders in education strive to establish.” He added, “Students trust [him] to provide a safe and inclusive setting to learn the curriculum.” An example of Ullrich’s dedication to inclusivity was learning the hard way that his favorite book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” told from the viewpoint of a young white Southern girl, was not going to work for his class which consisted primarily of Hispanic boys. They checked out. So he searched for a replacement that would resonate with them and found “The Circuit” by Francisco Jimenez, a story of a Mexican-American migrant family told through the eyes of the second-oldest son. “My students would laugh at certain passages as the humor soared right over my head. I felt as detached from Mexican folk-life as they had in Mockingbird.” But he learned the importance of heroes who look and talk like his students, not like him or Atticus Finch. Ullrich says, “I know that I will cease to make a difference if I lose my mentality that each day is new and that deep down, kids do want to succeed.” 

Stephanie Valderrama

Stephanie Valderrama of South Beloit, is in her fifth year at Rockford Environmental Science Academy, where she teaches Sixth Grade Multi-Language Lab plus Spanish for 7th and 8th grades. She has 11 years of experience teaching middle school. Stephanie “uses research-based best practices to challenge the students to meet her high expectations, but does so in a way that connects to their interests and learning styles,” according to fellow teacher, Annika Doering. Or, as students who nominated her see it, “She makes everything she teaches understandable and fun”! Stephanie’s first year of teaching was life-changing. Fighting, yelling, bullying and threats were daily events. Many students had been expelled from other Miami-Dade schools, lived with parental separation, abuse and gang activity. And despite being the neediest school, her school received little funding, to the point that the only books provided were those in such poor shape that the public schools had discarded them. No computers, supplies or curriculum were provided. After a hurricane destroyed this school, the students were relocated to the elementary campus, where teachers had to share rooms and create classrooms out of any space available, including a broom closet! Many teachers quit mid-year. Stephanie stayed until the school was closed at the end of the year.  She shared that she “left with many lessons, and a commitment to education that has kept me in the field fighting for students every school year.”

Ashley Boyer 1

“Not only did Mrs. Boyer contribute to my academic excellence, she helped me become the woman I am today.” A former student who’s since graduated from high school shared this praise in a letter of recommendation for Ashley Boyer, who teaches English and Reading to eighth graders at Poplar Grove’s North Boone Middle School. The Genoa resident has been at NBMS for nine years. She previously taught Social Studies at Dundee Middle School. Differentiation is a daily part of lessons; Ashley has found ways through technology to modify assignments without students even knowing that they're taking a different test. “At times, I have up to four modified assignments taking place, all with the same objectives, but written or presented differently to meet individual needs.” Acknowledging that middle school can be a challenging time, Ashley says, “Captivating the minds of teenagers so they are interested in reading and writing, rather than boring into the depth of YouTube channels can be an overwhelming feat, but with the understanding that commitment applies to more than just my lesson plans, it becomes a feasible task.” When Ashley observes a problem in the school, whether academic or emotional/social, she is committed to finding solutions. From one such issue, she developed an anti-bullying organization, FIRE (Friendships Include Respecting Everyone), in which students are the sole ambassadors. They help peers with problems, teach lessons to study hall classes, model inclusive behaviors and plan school-wide events such as “Start the Day with Hello” week. Increased inclusion, trust and confidence, as well as the breaking of stereotypes are a few of the results the FIRE group has produced. Beyond advising FIRE and connecting with a diverse group of middle schoolers to meet their academic, social and emotional needs, Ashley serves on the board of a nonprofit, is a Sunday school teacher, a park district sports coach, a leader for staff versus students events and mentor to two new teachers and three students.


Golden Apple Foundation has partnered with the family of Sunil Puri to recognize exceptional principals each year with the Outstanding Principal Award. This year secondary school principals are eligible and parents, colleagues and community members are encouraged to nominate their prinicpal. The selected principal will be be surprised in their school and they will receive $1,500 to be used in their school and $250 in Volcano Falls gift certificates to reward excellent students. Click here for the nomination form and a list of past principal recipients.  

Photos: Maud E. Johson Elementary Principal, Amber Miller, with Sunil Puri, CEO of First Midwest Group.