Four special suburban classrooms will all soon be empty for summer, but it's certain that various lessons -- such as a passion to learn, compassion for others and the desire to succeed -- will linger in the minds of the students and in the hearts of the Golden Apple recipients who taught them.
Teachers honored last month by the Golden Apple Foundation for their outstanding work included Pamela Kelly, a first-grade teacher at Naper Elementary School in Naperville; Kathy Burns, a second-grade teacher at Highlands Elementary School in Naperville; Robert Taylor, a second-grade teacher at Central Road Elementary School in Rolling Meadows; and Maria Barba, a third-grade dual-language teacher at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Hoffman Estates.
The Daily Herald spoke with the teachers about what they believe makes them standouts in the classroom. One characteristic they all had in common was their humble responses. Barba may have said it best: "I just work. I love what I do, and I can't not do it that way. To me it's just natural, I guess, what happens in the classroom."
While they are reluctant to say so, the winners do have unique teaching strategies that make them exceptional.
Q: What drives you to be an outstanding teacher?
Taylor: I think it all comes down to what you value. And I value community, and I value the impact that I can make on these kids growing up and being productive citizens. I know that choosing a career, if you're bright and ambitious, you have a lot of choices. If you can make the choice to be a teacher, you can really have a great impact.
Burns: My goal is that the children that come into my classroom each day feel good about themselves and succeed in life. What that success means for each student may be different, but each child is very important in their own special way.
Kelly: Working with small children is much too important of a job to do casually. What an awesome -- and terrifying -- responsibility to know that the words I utter and the lessons I teach will shape my students' attitudes and feelings about school. I owe them my very best.
Q: Who was your role model or inspiration?
Taylor: I'd like to credit my grandmother who, when I said I was going into teaching some 16, 17 years ago, she really supported me, whereas other people said, "Well, why don't you try something else where you can make more money?" I'd also like to credit some of the good teachers I had. Maybe they didn't have the best instructional practice, but I knew that every single one of them cared. ... And of course the people I surround myself with here. ... They've always been hardworking and dedicated people.
Barba: I have wonderful parents. Both of my parents are very hardworking and dedicated. I think that with those kind of role models I don't see how I could have been any other way. My mom is a teacher and I see that in her -- she has the passion and the love for teaching, and she would do it every day of her life.
Kelly: My first-grade teacher was Mrs. Miller. I fell in love with her and determined that I would also be a teacher when I grew up. Happily, I never wavered from that goal.
A: What one thing do you do in the classroom that you believe is truly unique?
Burns: Teaching is a profession in which teamwork and sharing is key, so I would hesitate to say that I do anything that is unique solely to myself. I do believe, however, that staying in touch with my students at a personal level is key. I make it a point to learn about what is going on in their lives so that I can share their enthusiasm and develop a wonderful, trusting relationship.
Barba: I know that one big piece that I like to include, personally, is a culture piece. I feel I owe it to my students to experience as much as possible and to ultimately feel good about their own beings, but also be able to respect and acknowledge the differences that exist in the world.
Taylor: I like to keep the kids active by moving around. I know that young learners associate movement with learning. ... I also like to kind of put them out there and do things that they weren't expecting.
Q: How do you keep being successful at your job each year?
Barba: Just keep trying. Reflecting is a big part of it. I know that everything that I do, it's not always the best thing. But I make sure that I go back and I reflect and I think about it and I change it and I keep changing it. I think being flexible is a big piece ... you need to be able to be OK when things don't go the way that it was planned, and change them as soon as you can, and try again until you're successful.
Kelly: It certainly helps to have a few months each summer to tank up and recharge. I also take classes offered by my district to keep myself fresh and up to date with best practices and changes in the field. The most important thing is learning from my colleagues.
Burns: I do my best to stay current with the trends in education and evaluate whether or not new concepts will impact my students in a positive way. Each year is different, and each child is different. Reflection on my practice needs to be ongoing.
• Daily Herald correspondent Katlyn Smith contributed to this report.