LOGAN SQUARE — A virtual staff meeting on Monday turned out to be a digital surprise party for Logan Square elementary school teacher Colleen McKenna.
McKenna, a fourth grade deaf education teacher at Salmon P. Chase Public School, 2021 N. Point St., has been named a recipient of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching and was applauded by her students and colleagues, who compiled a video that shows them congratulating her in sign language and holding up posters they made at home.
The Logan Square resident, who runs an after-school sign language club at Chase, initially thought the video presentation was a performance project she’d created with her club students as a way to replace their end-of-the-year showcase. But when she saw everyone signing “congratulations,” she thought it was a glitch. And then, it clicked and she “lost it,” emotionally, she said.
“It was an amazing way to be presented, with the students being a part of it and my family and my [colleagues],” McKenna said. “I will never forget that. That only goes down in history for me. It was one of my favorite moments of my life.”
McKenna is one of 10 Illinois teachers in grades 4-8 recognized for superior performance in the classroom and school community by Golden Apple, an education nonprofit committed to preparing, honoring and supporting exemplary educators who advance opportunities for students. Recipients of the award receive $5,000 in cash, a spring sabbatical and become fellows of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, a community that supports current and aspiring teachers and strengthens student learning.
Golden Apple President Alan Mather said the award review committee, made up of past winners, looks for teachers who exemplify civic engagement, cultural competence, professional expectations, instructional best practices and who have a positive influence on students’ lives.
Watch the surprise announcement here:
“So much of what came out of Colleen’s [application] was not just her commitment to teaching deaf students but how she builds self-advocacy in her students and self-advocacy in their parents,” Mather said. “The embracing of what some consider a disability into something of power is inspirational and at the same time she is taking a class on differentiating needs based on the young people.”
The nonprofit addresses Illinois’ teacher shortage by inviting each fellow to mentor future teachers and college seniors through its education programs, he said.
McKenna, who has taught at Chase for nearly five years and helped the dual language STEAM school start its deaf education program, said mentorship is crucial to building a support system for teachers, though too often they get cut. She said she had four years of mentorship early in her career that helped her grow and stay in the field.
“I lean on my colleagues all the time and now that I am a fellow, I would love to have the role of providing that for new teachers,” she said.
McKenna has taught deaf education for 15 years and is pursuing a doctorate in special education leadership. She also frequently volunteers after school hours to teach sign language to non-hearing impaired students. Chase has 28 deaf students out of its 425 student body and four deaf education teachers.
In the award’s 35-year history, McKenna is the first recipient from Chase. She is grateful to receive the honor and hopes it brings more awareness for deaf education in the state while inspiring other deaf educators.
“I feel like I can hopefully provide a better platform for awareness with low incidence disabilities such as deafness and also try to get more educators into deaf education,” she said. “There is not only a shortage but also a crisis in Illinois in recruiting deaf teachers.”
Margaret Sexton, Chase’s case manager who nominated McKenna for the award, called her a strong advocate for her students and a teacher that radiates kindness, support and care that is felt throughout the entire school community.
From simple things such as being able to tell teachers when their hearing aid is not working to using media tools in classrooms, she said McKenna helps students to advocate for what they need and make sure other teachers at Chase are trained on how to best teach deaf students.
“She wants to make sure everyone is comfortable because that’s what makes the perfect formula for good education — putting children always first,” Sexton said.
Sexton said the announcement was supposed to be made during an in-person ceremony March 18, but she was glad Golden Apple found a creative way to break the news virtually.
“When the conference was over, my cheeks hurt from smiling,” she said. “The excitement of seeing four pages of people filled — close to 100 people — to congratulate her was a lot of fun.”
Sexton, who has been at the school for 21 years, said the award will help put Chase on the map and show the community that it has extraordinary educators and programs. More importantly, though, it shines a light on student inclusivity.
“[The award] shows inclusion and the importance of students with diverse learning needs, that they have quality teachers included across the board,” she said.
McKenna said she plans to use some of her award money to help Logan Square families struggling during the pandemic, pay off some student debt and order a nice meal for her husband, who did the same for her Monday night.
“It’s still sinking in,” she said on winning the award. “I have these moments where it hits me like a wave — I cry and I laugh and… this is just unreal.”
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