Students in Regina Kinasz's eighth-grade homeroom returned to St. Emily School this year to find their photos showcased as all-star baseball cards on a display on their classroom door.
At the top was Kinasz's own baseball card, and all of her students knew how she had earned it.
In July, Kinasz was showcased as one of 30 All-Star teachers at the All-Star game in Minneapolis. It is part of a new program designed to honor teachers and promote the importance of education, sponsored jointly by People magazine, Target and Major League Baseball.
The group was introduced on Fox TV during part of pregame festivities, capping a whirlwind three days that mixed Kinasz with Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, a teacher herself; as well as Sharon Robinson, daughter of baseball great Jackie Robinson; actor Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family; and singer Idina Menzel, who performed during their pregame reception.
Among ballplayers Kinasz talked to were Cal Ripkin Jr., Ozzie Smith, and Cubs' first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Kinasz of Des Plaines. "We were treated like royalty, with receptions, a parade, gifts, a news conference -- and that's all before being introduced before the game.
"It's like we won the jackpot," she added. "I'll never forget it."
The winning teachers were selected after online voting, and ultimately determined from a pool of 90 finalists. Kinasz was the only teacher from Illinois and she chose to represent her favorite team, the Chicago Cubs.
Her moment in the national spotlight came after receiving the Distinguished Service Award earlier this year from the Archdiocese of Chicago as well as the Shining Star Award in 2011 from the village of Mount Prospect.
Turns out, it was her daughter, Kate, a medical student, who nominated her as a Mother's Day gift. In her nomination, she pointed to her mother's teaching career, which started in 1980 at Our Lady of Victory School on Chicago's North side, only to be sidelined in 1985, with the birth of her twins.
Kinasz subsequently stayed home to raise her five children, but volunteered at their school, St. Emily's, and tutored students until she returned to the classroom 10 years ago.
Since then, the math and religion teacher has spearheaded efforts to restructure the math curriculum, started an after-school math program and significantly raised her students' test scores. She led the faculty committee to earn the school National Blue Ribbon status and currently leads the school's renewal of its accreditation. She also moderates the Scholastic Bowl team and National Junior Honor Society.
"She's a very dynamic teacher," says Principal Mary Hammelman. "Her classes are interactive and the kids are constantly involved in problem solving. She's always focused on getting her kids into advanced math classes in high school."
Kinasz teaches math to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students at the Mount Prospect school, and last week, she finished up review packets with them. Pacing in front of the class, she went through the problems in rapid-fire delivery, asking students around the room for their answers.
"I try to complete a full year of algebra with my eighth-graders," she says, "and since we can't cover it all during the school day, I offer an after-school class.
"In my six years of doing it, I've only had one student not come," she adds. "I love it. That's where you see a real love of learning."
Her eighth-graders said they had voted for her in the All-Star balloting and watched her being introduced on television before the game.
"I like her energy," said Stephen Zaremba of Mount Prospect. "She makes class fun."