Laura Greier of Loves Park has been an early childhood teacher for 11 years, the past three at Rockford’s full-inclusion preschool, Nashold Early Childhood Center. She chooses “not to be blind to the differences of others, but to see each student as a success.” She says, “Many of my students, when they walk into my classroom, come to me having experienced trauma, little to no social emotional regulation skills and very little educational background. For my students, getting their basic needs met, such as an unresolved conflict at home or eating a meal, this is their first priority. This becomes my first priority too.” Additionally, Laura feels that all teachers and all students have “strengths to build upon, interests to share, and experiences to honor.” Learning from the behaviors Laura models, her students become empathetic, mindful problem solvers who accept, respect, understand, support and encourage each other. By being responsible for their own problem solving, her students gain confidence and leadership skills and their desire to learn grows. Laura is respected not just by her students, but also by their parents and her peers, school and district. Last summer, she led instructional sessions during district-wide professional development days, reaching more than 80 teachers. She is Nashold’s building mentor, supporting and guiding new teachers. The parents of two of Laura’s students wrote about one son who was reading well above grade level. Laura created ways to help him become an even better student and nurtured his early love of reading. Her attention helped their other son overcome his shyness; he now has friends and a love for learning. Principal Erin Salberg shared another story about Laura’s desire to make positive differences and persistence in finding what works best for each student. A student was struggling with self-regulation and problem solving. Laura contacted his family to work with her to develop the skills. Though the family initially resisted, she continued to share praise and provide opportunities for them to share success stories with her. Realizing that this teacher truly cared and was not going to give up on their son, the family accepted her concern and offers of assistance. “The family and Ms. Laura became an unstoppable force. The student made so much growth in that year, that he went from being referred for special education the year before, to maybe needing a 504 plan, to going to Kindergarten with very few supports.” Laura says her mission is to “include all and empower those around me to become the best versions of themselves. Today I lead my school. Tomorrow my students will lead the world.” 

Kimberly Brace

Kimberly Brace’s student nominator shared this about why she is an outstanding teacher: “She is smart and she helped me write and I got way better at it and she helped me with way more stuff than any other teacher and she is just a really good teacher.” Kimberly Brace of Roscoe has been a teacher for 17 years, teaching multiple subjects to children in grades K through 3. She has taught at Whitehead Elementary for the past eight years, currently teaching second grade integrated literacy, writing and math. Kimberly aims to guide students as they advance their reading skills to the “best of their ability so that they can dream about their future.” After seeing a child nearly fall through the cracks because of a lack of testing and resources, her passion of teaching reading skills swelled. She got a second master’s degree as a reading specialist, invested in professional development and implemented systemic strategies to make sure students would have the tools necessary to be reading on grade level by the end of third grade. Kimberly collaborates with interventionists, reading coaches, other teachers and administration to find the best ways to meet students’ needs. When appropriate resources became available, Kimberly was able to reach the child who nearly failed reading and writing tasks in third grade, making the difference needed to help her learn more successfully. A Title 1 teacher at Whitehead shared that Kimberly “has mastered the art of differentiation and meets the needs of her struggling students, grade level learners and high achievers equally well. She currently has a student who is working at a Kindergarten level. This student is thriving in Kim’s room because of [her] ability to provide instruction that is challenging enough to move the student forward without causing frustration. This student has shown a positive change in her attitude toward school, her confidence and in her academic performance.” Kimberly also brings in students from other classes to work in her classroom. One child sometimes joins her for more than just academic help. He told Kimberly, “no one cares about me, not even my mom.” Heart melted, she invites him to her classroom for morning conversation and extra attention, “in hopes that he returns to his classroom ready to learn for the afternoon.” Kimberly is also not afraid to jump into new programs or to tweak them as needed. Pam Miner, principal at Whitehead, shared that after Kimberly and her grade level partner embraced a new phonics program, they didn’t see the results on MAP assessments that they had envisioned. Kimberly learned of an intensive literacy intervention being used and decided to use its Guided Reading Classroom version. “The results by the spring MAP were astounding. 81% of her students met or exceeded their growth goal”! Pam added that Kimberly “believes in her students and it shows.”



Golden Apple Foundation has partnered with the family of Sunil Puri to recognize exceptional principals each year with the Outstanding Principal Award. Primary and 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 2020 nomination form and a list of past principal recipients.  Deadline to nominate is March 3, 2020.

Photo: Principal Eric Flohr of Hononegah Community High School receiving the 2019 Outstanding Princiapal Award from  Sunil Puri, CEO of First Midwest Group.

Heidi Milner

Heidi Milner of Rockton has been teaching Kindergarten at Ledgewood School for 11 years. To show her concern for the wellbeing of everyone at Ledgewood, Heidi serves on committees focused on nutrition, climate and safety. Golden Apple Academy member Katherine Koehler who worked with Heidi shared that in her classroom, “you will see that each child not only matters but is loved and a part of a family. She goes above and beyond to meet individual needs of students, provides accommodations for student needs, and creates an environment that is fun, loving and enriching.” Because of the desire to support a student who had alopecia, Heidi helped her class learn about the disease and how they could help; they raised 600 for the Children’s Alopecia Project and now do different class philanthropy projects every year. Heidi commits to her students, job and school 365 days a year: preparing lessons, grading papers, emailing parents, attending events; taking courses; researching teaching strategies, writing students, collaborating with others, working on school projects and collecting items for the classroom. She has even organized summer playdates at area playgrounds for her previous year’s students to have fun and catch up with each other. Heidi says, “It could be said that teaching is my career during the school day, and it is my favorite hobby during my ‘free time.’” Heidi finds collaboration essential because it “provides me with a wide range of perspectives and helps me explore ideas outside of my own personal experiences.” She collaborates with teachers she studied with, special education teachers and both teachers within and outside her school and district. This year, she is partnering with a second grade teacher who brings students to Heidi's classroom to read books with her students. All differences in culture, health, economic status and more are acknowledged, discussed and celebrated. Heidi uses projects in class such as puzzles that have uniquely shaped, colored and sized pieces to help students build bonds as a diverse “class family.” Several years ago, a student commented that Heidi is the children’s school “mom” because she loves them, keeps them safe and helps them grow. Heidi also knows how important it is to involve actual family members to support a child’s educational success. She keeps them informed and invites them to participate in lessons. In the nomination submitted for Heidi, a parent wrote, “She sends reminders to us of special activities the kids need to dress for or items that need to be brought in. She really helps keep us parents on the ball for our children’s success. She even posted a video to read the students a bedtime story. She has been a true gift to our children and us parents. She is kind, warm and a true example of what an AMAZING teacher is.”

Patricia Magallanes

Patricia Magallanes of Belvidere has spent seven of her 10 years of teaching at Washington STEM Academy in Belvidere, where she teaches 4th grade Bi-Lingual. “Teaching in a low income STEM school required me to increase my level of commitment to achieve goals I did not think I could meet.” Patricia completed a master’s program, participates in professional development training, encourages parent/student feedback and collaborates with other educators to move her teaching practices forward. With the knowledge and experience she’s gained, she mentors new teachers to help them be successful, particularly in personalized learning and integrating curriculum. While each student has individual skills and needs and they aren’t all necessarily at grade level, Patricia says that each of them “has the potential to make great gains that can be celebrated.” Patricia pushes students to set and achieve goals they may not have initially thought they could meet. She says “they are taught that mistakes and ‘getting stuck’ are just a part of the learning process and it does not define them or represent their capacity for learning.” She wants her students to see their “learning as a process and not as a ‘smart or not smart’ trait.” Dr. Megan Johnson, Patricia’s former principal and current asst. superintendent, recommends her as an expert in Project Based Learning. “Patti and her students look at the project/task at hand, determine the standards they are working on, and then develop a learning plan of how they are going to get there. When visiting Patti’s classroom, students take great pride in telling you what they are working on, why they are working on it, and how this will help in the future.” Daily morning meetings include discussion, problem solving and celebrations of achievements, large and small. The trust built through these meetings helps students feel secure to take risks to advance their learning. Patricia’s trust and encouraging words inspire her students to trust and encourage each other. When one child retreated to the Calm Corner, quietly crying in frustration about multiplication, she spotted a child who had previously been struggling, go assure her. Before long, the first student returned to try again. Patricia adds that, “as an educator, I carry the responsibility of academically preparing my students for the next grade level, but my philosophy in teaching is to prepare students to become good citizens in our community.”

Angela Hulsey

Angela Hulsey of Rockford has been teaching in Rockford for 11 years. She taught Kindergarten for nine years and is in her third year teaching West View Elementary first graders. There are many trends and jargon in today’s education field. Angela explains one: “Positive Growth Mindset is a catchy phrase, but the essential philosophy of staying positive and embracing failure as a gateway to success is the essence of why I teach and why I am the teacher I am today.” Christine Smith, who was principal when Angela taught at Beyer Elementary, recommended her because she is not just an effective teacher, she has “the gift of teaching – the ability to truly light up the classroom with inspiration.” Questioning herself and her choice of vocation while at her first school, Angela found the need to stop blaming others and reevaluate her own behavior and attitude. She decided that having a positive attitude was a choice, so she chose it! She sought out positive peers and mentors, professional development courses and a master’s degree. She adjusted her thinking, realizing that the more challenging students are the ones who most need love and attention. Angela credits Connected School Training with changing her classroom management style and even with saving her from leaving the field of education. She learned to make positive connections with colleagues, students and their families. Since she didn’t know about positive growth mindset until an adult, she concluded that many students – and adults – could use guidance to understand how to model positivity and form connections as well. After all, she has taught students who have experienced such trauma as an incarcerated parent, abandonment, foster care and even a murdered family member. Now when a student displays bad behavior, she considers it an opportunity to “teach them about better choices, calmer reactions, forgiveness, redemption and being a part of a positive community.” She disciplines privately or directs students to a calming corner as needed. Referrals to administrators have sharply declined. “I maintain my classroom authority without the drama.” Angela builds rapport with her students by establishing expectations early and by sharing her own likes and dislikes with them. She lets her students know that they can share anything with her and she will make the time to listen. Though her “job” is to teach students, Angela clearly also connects with others in the school. Another West View teacher wrote, “She teaches her students to strive for excellence, to love learning and to respect each other, and she teaches all of us (her peers) to give our best to our students, to wear a smile, to have faith and to remember that the storms of life can often produce beautiful rainbows and new growth.”

Miranda Thompson

Miranda Thompson of Machesney Park has 14 years of teaching experience, having taught classes from K through fifth grade in Illinois and Florida. She’s in her ninth year of teaching Kindergarten at Machesney Park’s Donald C. Parker Center. She says, “teaching is not something you can ‘turn off’ on the weekends. When I come home from school, I am thinking about whether a student remembered to bring snow boots home or whether a lost tooth made it home safely for the tooth fairy.” This kind of thoughtfulness is just one reason students in her classroom feel so safe and welcome with her. The positive relationships and environment Miranda builds allows her students to make more growth in all areas. Miranda uses her experience as a mother of three, input from peers and students’ families, as well as regular monitoring and data reviews to customize lessons for students working below grade level expectations and for those who are performing at higher levels. She makes sure each child knows she truly believes in them and their ability to achieve their goals. Miranda imparts that differences are what make each of us special. Diversity is both embraced and loved in her classroom. She says, “The students have shown such patience, kindness and warmth to one another, regardless of their socio-economic status or backgrounds. I have three students with autism who are a part of the classroom during special times each day, and when it is time for them to return to their homeroom, they are flooded with hugs and goodbyes.” Because her students learn in different ways, Miranda offers several options for learning: through technology such as smartboards and Chromebooks; through music; through writing, reading and art; and “through small groups which allow for differentiation among each group.” Classroom facilitator, Paige Yeoman who submitted a nomination for Miranda says, “She truly makes each child feel special and loved in her classroom. Her dedication shows.” Working with Miranda and seeing her love of teaching led Paige to change her major from nursing to education. Miranda writes that she loves what she does and cares about the success of all the students in the school, not just the ones in her classroom. She added, “The kids are the reason I have gained such a passion for this career. Each day is a new adventure, and I can’t wait to see what will happen next.” 

Mallori Sage

Mallori Sage of Machesney Park taught fourth grade at Galapagos Charter School for two years and is now in her fifth year of teaching third grade at Whitehead Elementary. Her established class rules are “Be Kind, Be Brave and Be Honest.” In a letter of recommendation, Rockford University Assistant Professor of Education, Annie Baddoo, related a situation in which Mallori recognized an issue and bravely fought to remedy it. “She analyzed data related to students … falling behind academically. Mallori realized that these students were often absent …. She connected with the students and their families and realized that these particular students had to cross a dangerous highway to get to school, as well as walk through icy, slippery blocks when the weather was bad. Knowing how important it is for the students to attend school, as well as the equity demands of the situation, Mallori advocated through the ranks of administration for the students to be able to have bus transportation to school.” Mallori tells her students that she sees, is proud of and believes in them. By building trusting relationships between herself and her students as well as between the students themselves, Mallori allows students to learn from mistakes, make amends, problem solve, take risks, try new things and cope in healthier ways. She models her own willingness to take risks and continue her growth by trying new methods and making course corrections as needed. Principal Pam Miner says that Mallori treats each third grader with warmth and respect, ever mindful of their character traits. “As I hear her use the phrase, ‘bring it back, bring it back,’ I am reminded that she understands the social needs of a third grader, but also understands the need to push them to strive to bring their best game to the learning table.” Mallori says, “I strive to spark joy, curiosity, community and kindness in my classroom. I strive to prepare my students not just for the next grade level, but the world beyond – the expansive, diverse world where they will take their places as global citizens and future leaders.” Each of Mallori’s nominations were from students, with one summing up the reason for the submission: “She's an awesome teacher. She's teaching me great things.”

Jackie Weerda

Jackie Weerda of Rockton has 15 years of teaching experience, having taught first grade, early childhood special education and now Kindergarten. For the past 10 years, she's taught at Roscoe’s Ledgewood Elementary. Principal Chad Etnyre says, “She is deeply vested in our students, parents and staff. If you want to know what makes Mrs. Weerda an exceptional candidate, you need to move beyond her expertise with instruction. She contributes to the educational environment unselfishly – allowing a great school to become even better.” She is committed to the “whole child” in her classroom, not just their understanding of a particular lesson. She is committed to collaborating with colleagues year-round, saying “my ideas alone are much less powerful than my entire team’s.” And at the beginning of each school year, she commits to her students’ families that she will keep their children safe, respected, and loved as if they were her own. Jackie creates bonds with her students right away, learning everything she can about them, even contacting their parents to ask how she can be the best teacher for their child. Establishing trust allows her students to feel comfortable trying new things and taking risks in their learning. “They know that even if the work is hard or they do not immediately succeed, I will support them every step of the way and they will finish their kindergarten year with increased confidence, a strong grasp of kindergarten academic concepts and a lifelong excitement about learning.” Jackie knows that the diversity in her class is not just about skin color or nationality, but also about different levels of need. She teaches students with ADHD, language delays, anxiety and Autism alongside students who are at advanced levels. Some students need special accommodation such as allowing them to chew gum or to rock in their chairs. When another student questions these differences, she tells them, “Everyone in my classroom gets to learn and in order to do our best learning, some people need different things.” One writer of a recommendation for Jackie shared a unique perspective – as a peer teacher – and also as grandmother of one of Jackie’s students, who she's seen thrive under Jackie’s guidance. One day, her granddaughter excitedly exclaimed, “Grandma – I bet you are sad you didn’t have Mrs. Weerda as your kindergarten teacher. She is amazing”!

Lori Granite

Lori Granite of Rockford has taught 1st grade self-contained, PK4-6th/Spanish, and now teaches JK4-5th grade S.T.E.A.M at Rockford Christian School, where she’s been for 10 years. Despite having 25 years of teaching experience, Lori continues to seek new information and best practices to add to her “toolbox.” By furthering her education, attending professional development workshops and participating in professional organizations, she feeds her love of learning and models that passion to her RCS learners. Lori knows her students, their backgrounds, learning styles, interests and cultural diversities. She attends their events; participates in service projects and fundraisers; gives notes of encouragement; and calls parents to keep them informed about their child’s progress.” Lori also takes advantage of our community’s amazing technology resources, connecting with Discovery Center Museum, Collins Aerospace, Winnebago County Farm Bureau, Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful and Burpee Museum, just to name a few. These efforts convey how much she cares about the students and their academic success. One parent wrote that her third-grade daughter raves about Lori, “she wants us to think and she always is so happy to answer our questions – and the things she teaches always makes me want to ask so many questions.” Lori’s students delve into class topics so deeply that they often continue research beyond the classroom, creating posters and PowerPoint presentations on their own to share with the class, not for grades, just to satisfy their curiosity about topics she’s introduced. Students also share “treasures” with Lori, such as insects, snakeskins and x-rays, for her to identify and discuss. Several parents wrote in amazement about what their children learn from Lori and how they have even taught them a few things over dinner talk! During anatomy lessons, Lori calls the students “doctor.” They proudly write “Dr.” on their work. In doing so, she says, “they easily become motivated to reach higher academic expectations because they know I believe in them.” Lori applies differentiation techniques to both teaching plans and assessments. Reviews may look like a Jeopardy game or a childish drawing, but by collaborating with parents, colleagues and resource staff, Lori finds and uses the best methods to connect with students at their levels. “I have discovered that when students realize assessments can take on forms to fit their particular learning styles, they have less anxiety about testing and show more confidence in class.” The third-grader’s parent praised Lori for inspiring her students and encouraging them to ask questions. ”Those are the children who can change the world. And those are the things that Mrs. Granite brings into a classroom.”

Danielle Peterson

Danielle Peterson of Rockton is in her 14th year of teaching at Prairie Hill School, where she has taught K-2, been a Special Education Resource teacher, and now teaches Blended Pre-K (regular and special education for children ages 3-6). Prairie Hill Kindergarten teacher and Golden Apple Academy member Shannon Fisher says Danielle has “one of those teacher hearts that you only read about but rarely have the privilege to observe, much less work with. Danielle helped build our phenomenal preschool program, and made the transition from resource teacher to preschool teacher seamlessly.” She often provides parents’ first experience with sending a child to school, so she makes it her goal to provide a good one, and to make sure that at the end of the year, her students are ready for kindergarten. Principal Kevin Finnegan wrote that “nothing seems too unexpected for her.” Whether she is changing diapers, modeling peer relationships, building motor skills, emphasizing language, comforting someone, teaching letters and numbers or designing an engaging classroom, he says, “she has to do it, and somehow she manages to do so gracefully.” A student’s parent wrote in a recommendation letter about how pleased she is that her shy daughter was able to come out of her shell in Danielle’s class. “I cannot imagine my daughter's first year of school going any better … she would go to school seven days a week if she could! And it's all because of Mrs. Peterson and the environment she fosters.” Danielle expects and respects each student’s thoughts and views, creating a place in which each student feels valued and safe to share. The parent added that, “Mrs. Peterson has something about her. It's totally unexplainable or describable but children instinctively trust her. She has an innate way of communicating with kids.” She also communicates well with her peers and her students’ parents. The parent further compared Danielle’s stellar stream of communication to parents as enabling them to feel “like a fly on the wall”! Danielle’s love of teaching is evident in the essay she submitted. Rather than saying, “I have to,” or “I do,” she starts several sentences with “I get to”: “I get to see their excitement when they recognize a number or letter for the first time; I get to hear all their stories; I get to help them figure out how they can solve problems.” She also says, “if you don’t love what you do and don’t love teaching and learning, you can’t teach your students to love learning, which is one of my number one priorities.” During centers/small groups, her students think they are playing with their friends, yet this is when most of the learning and love of learning happens. They learn letters, numbers, direction following skills and more, through games, tasks and craft projects. The students “are the reason [I] love teaching … I want them to be proud of me because they consistently make me proud."