A Hoffman Estates teacher was surprised Wednesday morning with the Golden Apple Award, an honor recognizing teachers in the Chicago area for their outstanding work in education.
Maria Barba, who teaches third grade at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, is one of only 10 prekindergarten through third grade teachers who were picked for the award out of almost 600 nominees.
Recipients receive a tuition-free spring quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern University and $3,000. They are also named Fellows of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, which provides them with professional development and mentoring opportunities.
More than a dozen people, including friends, co-workers and village officials crowded into Barba's classroom around 9 a.m., where she was teaching a science lesson to more than a dozen students, all sitting cross-legged on the floor with big smiles on their faces.
Her expression went from confused to tearful shock in a matter of seconds when everyone piled in and she caught sight of a Golden Apple sign.
"These are happy tears," Barba, 26, assured her students after she was told the news.
"It's such an honor," she added. "I can't believe this is actually happening."
Hoffman Estates Mayor William McLeod said the award means a lot to the village.
"This speaks excellently of (Schaumburg Township Elementary) District 54 and the quality of education District 54 provides for our students," he said.
"You have the most important job in the world, and that is mentoring and teaching young people" he added, before presenting Barba with a key to the village. "And through this award you're also going to help other teachers become better teachers, and that's what's really so important about this."
After the surprise visit in her classroom, Barba and her students were led down a hallway filled with students and teachers from other classrooms waving gold pom-poms. The whole school gathered in the gym for a small assembly where Barba's parents and school administrators were waiting to congratulate her.
Principal Danette Meyer said what makes Barba an exceptional teacher is her ability to engage students.
"The kids learn," she said, adding that Barba has been at the school for four years and conducts class each day in both English and Spanish. "The kids in her classroom are incredibly successful."
Barba was nominated for the award by Elizabeth Blazejak, whose son was in Barba's class last year.
"She just did everything in her power to make it the best year for him," Blazejak said. "I knew she would fit so well into the academy. She's a natural-born teacher."
The recipients of the 2012 Golden Apple Awards will be honored during a black-tie event on Oct. 12 at the WTTW Channel 11 studios in Chicago.