Hawthorn Middle School South eighth-grader Teddy Chen had plenty of good things to say about his art instructor when he was interviewed by representatives from the prestigious Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.
"She's really spunky," Chen said of the teacher, Mary Benton. "She brings a lot of fun to the art room."
There was plenty of fun in Benton's Vernon Hills classroom Wednesday when she was surprised with the Golden Apple. She's the only teacher in Lake County to receive the honor this year.
Colleagues, friends, family, media and others entered the room unannounced while Benton was leading a seventh-grade art class. She quickly gathered the children near her when she realized what was happening.
"Oh, my gosh," Benton said as cheers erupted before she received a Golden Apple gift basket, flowers and kind words from Vernon Hills Trustee Thom Koch Jr., a teaching colleague.
Last month, Benton was announced as one of 32 Golden Apple finalists for 2014. The finalists were selected from a pool of 620 nominations and 272 applicants of fourth- through eighth-grade teachers in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Only 10 teachers receive the annual Golden Apple. This year's winners will receive a tuition-free, spring quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern University and $3,000 cash.
Benton said she looks forward to working every day with "amazing" pupils at Hawthorn Middle School South. The building's hallways are filled with student art created in Benton's class.
"Every subject is so important, but art is important," she said. "Art is a core class. It's not an (elective). It needs to be in the schools taught by a professional art teacher every day as much as you can."
Middle School South Principal Robert Natale was among the Hawthorn Elementary District 73 administrators who watched Benton receive the Golden Apple. He informed Benton that her afternoon classes would be covered by another instructor and encouraged her to celebrate her accomplishment with family.
Natale praised Benton for having an enthusiasm for art that rubs off on students.
"As a middle school, we're dealing with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders," Natale said. "And really, what we're trying to do at the middle-level education is helping build their own identity. And for many children, this is a time when they really make a connection with the arts. And when they have a passionate teacher like Mary, this is something that unleashes a passion that they end up tying into for a lifetime."