How Golden Apple finalist Amy Wacker fosters inclusivity in the classroom

Amy Wacker, third-grade teacher at Tripp Elementary School in Buffalo Grove and Golden Apple finalist, says her favorite part about teaching is seeing the smiles on students’ faces when they are in the classroom everyday.

“There are so many times when you don't know if they're struggling at home or if something's happened, because when they walk into school, they're just so excited to be there,” Wacker said. “A lot of students love to give hugs and just say hello. I think they know that school is a safe place for them, and I'm happy that I can provide that for them.”

Wacker, her colleagues say, is dedicated to inclusivity and connecting with students in her classroom.

According to Tripp Elementary Principal Tina Schenk, who has worked with Wacker for more than 15 years, Wacker also prioritizes forming close relationships with her colleagues. She is currently mentoring three teachers who were recently added to the third-grade team, meeting with them once a week to discuss curriculum and lesson planning, among other things.

Schenk also noted how skilled Wacker is at working with students who have special needs, whether behavioral or academic.

“She just has a natural tact for making every kid feel important and making every kid feel included. When you provide a kid with that type of an inclusive environment, the possibilities are endless,” Schenk said. “So the growth that we see out of her classroom is just amazing, and it's all because of what she does to ensure that the kids feel loved and they feel safe, and that they know that they're going to grow when they're in that classroom.”

Wacker works with students with ADHD, ADD, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, hearing impairments and autism. She said she loves to watch students with special needs learn and adds that they teach her so much about their world and how they perceive it. She said it is a good lesson that “not everyone perceives things the same way, and it's OK to look different and act different and that you should still be welcomed into the same place as everybody else is.”

  Third-grade teacher Amy Wacker works with her class at Tripp Elementary School in Buffalo Grove. Brian Hill/

Her colleague Dana Childers, a Multi-Tiered System of Supports teacher who taught third grade with Wacker for 20 years, says Wacker’s dedication to all types of children’s education was prevalent during the COVID pandemic.

Wacker was the first teacher to come back into the building and teach students with special needs who had to be back in school to learn in-person, Childers noted.

  Third-grade teacher Amy Wacker works with a student at Tripp Elementary School in Buffalo Grove. Brian Hill/

“She had so many kids in her class that, with the 6-feet apart stuff and the dividers the kids had up on their desks, she actually had to be moved to a larger classroom, so she was teaching in a double-the-size workspace,” Childers said. “She had to wear a microphone and we referred to it as the Wacker warehouse. She came in and she met those needs, and those kids needed to be in person with her and she did it and she made it work.”

Schenk, Childers and another colleague, Hilary Wischmeyer, described how Wacker has swiftly adapted to the changes that District 102 and Buffalo Grove have made to be more inclusive to students. As the school as a whole has changed to be more accommodating to students with different needs, Wacker has embraced this mentality by taking special care of students with special needs or a first language other than English, according to Wischmeyer.

Amy Wacker Courtesy of Golden Apple Foundation

Wacker said that once a week, she has her students do a sharing activity in the morning where students share something that they did over the weekend or something that they’re looking forward to, whether it’s a holiday or a special event. She encourages students to share aspects of their culture, whether it be special traditions or clothing for a holiday, to promote inclusivity in the classroom.

“Students come from different backgrounds, and just allowing them to share those backgrounds is important. I also think differentiation plays a big part in that not all students grasp concepts the same way at the same pace, and that's OK,” Wacker said. “As an educator, my job is to make sure that they're learning at their own pace and they don't feel different from their peers because they don't get a concept when the rest of their peers do.”

Curriculum vitae: Amy Wacker

Age: 47

Residence: Huntley

Hometown: East Peoria, IL

Occupation: Third-grade teacher at Tripp Elementary School in Buffalo Grove

Education: Early Childhood Education with an endorsement in Special Education, currently working on EL (English Language) endorsement

Activities: Head of staff social committee, head of annual third-grade farewell party, teacher mentor, Math Salt member (staff member group that discusses math curriculum), part of a sub shadowing program (mentoring substitute teachers)

Tips from a top teacher

Advice to parents and educators from Amy Wacker, third-grade teacher at Tripp Elementary School in Buffalo Grove and Golden Apple finalist:

– Students should always come to you if they are having a peer conflict. No one will ever be in trouble for approaching you for advice.

– Teachers of younger grades should have individual work time with each student rather than walking around the class and managing the students as a whole.

– Be a kind and humorous presence so students feel comfortable to rely on you for a hug or a laugh if they need or want one.

– Continue to grow and evolve as a teacher as education grows and evolves. (Wacker is currently getting her EL endorsement and earned her LBS1 endorsement a few years ago).

– Students grasp concepts at different times in different ways, and that’s OK.

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