Chicago Bears backup quarterback Caleb Hanie and safety Craig Steltz made a surprise visit Tuesday to River Trails Middle School in Mount Prospect.
They, along with Bears mascot Staley, were introduced to 195 eighth graders who were gathered in the school's library, but the assembly wasn't about students meeting some of their favorite heroes on the gridiron.
Instead, the players came to honor another hero: River Trails teacher Jennifer Ritchie.
An eighth grade language arts teacher, Ritchie on Tuesday was named a "Hero in the Classroom" as part of a program recognizing the region's top educators.
"You always remember your favorite teacher," Hanie said. "Growing up, teachers are such a valuable part of your life."
Ritchie was introduced as someone who displays courage and as an example for her students and colleagues.
"I'm trying to stay calm. After 20 years of teaching, I've never found myself in front of an assembly," Ritchie said afterward. "I avoid them. I'm much better working behind the scenes with the students."
Her colleagues agreed, pointing to Ritchie's positive approach and ability to connect with students in order to engage them in their schoolwork.
"It's not easy teaching adolescents," said Anita Block, River Trails assistant principal and a former eighth grade teacher. "She just understands kids outside of academics. She's always positive and willing to do what it takes to pull kids in."
As part of the award, Ritchie received a $250 gift card to OfficeMax for classroom supplies, a $1,000 check for River Trails programs and a personalized Bears jersey.
But that's not all. She also received two tickets to the next Bears home game, on Dec. 12 against the New England Patriots. As one of their "heroes," she will meet players and team officials during an on-field recognition ceremony before the game.
The "Heroes" program is part of a partnership between the Bears, Symetra Financial and Gallagher Benefits Services. River Trails was their 13th stop this season. Eighth grader Joey Caputo of Mount Prospect described Ritchie as an approachable teacher that students know they can turn to her for help at any time.
"She helps kids individually," said Caputo, who led his classmates in singing the Bears' fight song, 'Bear Down, Chicago Bears' at the assembly. "She's just willing to go out of her way to help kids when they need it."
On hand for the early morning ceremony were officials from Gallagher, as well as Dane Delli, River Trails Elementary District 26 superintendent.
"It's evident that she cares deeply about children," Delli said. "She never assumes they're all at the same place in their learning, but she helps them where they're at."
River Trails Principal Keir Rogers had nominated Ritchie for the award, and said he would prominently display her "Hero in the Classroom" plaque in the building.
"There are tons of schools in the state, all with special teachers," Rogers said. "But we are so fortunate to have Ms. Ritchie."