Whether it's rooting for a student at a hockey game, applying for grants to incorporate technology into her classroom, or teaming with co-workers to develop a summer writing program, second-grade teacher Kathy Burns consistently makes a positive impact at Naperville's Highlands Elementary School, parents and students say.
But Burns seemed a little baffled Wednesday when a group of people, many toting cameras, unexpectedly entered her classroom to announce she had won the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.
She is one of only 10 prekindergarten through third-grade teachers in the Chicago area to receive the honor from a pool of almost 600 nominees.
Her friends, colleagues and family poured into the classroom for the surprise visit as Burns was teaching 24 students who were sitting in front of her cross-legged on the floor.
"I'm just so overwhelmed," said Burns, as her eyes filled with tears.
Her daughter, Jennifer, presented her with a bouquet of flowers. Her sons, Mark and Brian, were on hand for the surprise, too, after Brian took a bus through the night from the University of Iowa.
"She's so devoted to her students," Jennifer said. "She's always improving her teaching methods every year."
Burns said she scours magazines, online journals, articles and books written by teachers to stay abreast of changing trends in education. She also led a workshop for co-workers when Highlands first introduced SMART Boards into the classroom.
"Our learning never stops," Burns said.
Besides her research, Burns created a literature club at Highlands when she first started teaching there 17 years ago.
At an all-school assembly following the surprise visit, Principal Susan Stuckey asked students to stand if they had ever used a SMART Board, joined the lit club or enrolled in the summer writing program Burns formed with a team of five co-workers. Every student in the gymnasium stood.
"Mrs. Burns, you have a huge impact," Stuckey said.
Julie Carlsen, Naperville Unit District 203 director of community relations, nominated Burns for the award. Burns taught Carlsen's son, Eddie, last year.
Burns would cheer Eddie, now in the third grade, at his hockey games. She cut out a newspaper score card so he could fill in the Chicago Blackhawks score during the Stanley Cup playoffs in the classroom. And at the end of the school year, Burns gave him a card with an image of Blackhawks players and superimposed Eddie's face using Photoshop, Carlsen recalled.
Those are just some of the "things that made him feel special and valued for what is interesting to him, not just as a learner but as a person," Carlsen said.
"I feel like she really went out of her way to make him feel special, and as a result, he bloomed as a person."
Kay Kaszuba, a 7-year-old student in Burns' class, said kids can read to their peers with a microphone, part of an amplifier system Burns received by applying for a local grant.
"She makes everything fun," Kay said.
It's part of a confidence-building, personal classroom environment that struck Judith Frank-Gonwa, a member of the Golden Apple selection committee who conducted a site visit in April to interview parents, teachers, administrators and students. The committee evaluates teachers in areas of professionalism and instruction using research-based standards.
"Her relationship with the kids was very impressive, the way she looked at kids individually and tried to meet their academic needs," Frank-Gonwa said. "Often, she would use something they were interested in to hook them into the learning process."
The Golden Apple foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring and helping teachers in Illinois. Burns will receive a $3,000 cash award and a tuition-free, six-month sabbatical to study at Northwestern University.
While Burns is unsure what she'll study, she's eager to share her tools and strategies with other award recipients in the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, a group that offers mentoring.
"You can never be successful alone," Burns said. "In school, you don't live in a bubble. You are a team."