A few years ago, Julian sixth grade teacher Seth Baker's father came to Oak Park for a seminar on teaching.
From across a room, Baker saw his father, Supt. John Fagan and Dan Schweers talking. Now a superintendent at a central Illinois high school, Schweers was Baker's sixth grade teacher, a mentor whom he credits in part for his career path.
The three educatorsâ€"the father, the boss, the mentorâ€"stood talking to one another, likely unaware, Baker said, of their single degree of separation.
The moment of colliding worlds imprinted itself on Baker's memory, perhaps because it makes an apt metaphor for one of his teaching philosophies: that educators rely on input, ideas and inspiration from one another, and that credit should be shared.
It's the only part about being named a finalist for the Golden Apple Award that is "unfortunate" for Baker.
"It's kind of funny that it's an individual award," he said. "It gives the impression that what we do in the classroom is somehow isolated."
Instead, Baker said, what he does every day represents the confluence of every teacher he's worked with during his 11-year career, including his current team members Rebecca Williams and Sharen Young.
"It would be wrong for me to take the accolades of Golden Apple without making perfectly clear that ... it is collaborative in every way," Baker said.
Baker is one of 32 finalists from approximately 1,100 nominations. The award goes to 10 teachers each year and rotates grade levels in a three-year cycle: grades 4-8 this year, pre-K through 3 next year, and high school. Last year Oak Park and River Forest High School's Aaron Podolner was one of the winners in the high school category. Baker expects to hear the results in early March.
Recipients get a tuition-free sabbatical at Northwestern University, $2,500, a computer, and membership in the Golden Apple Academy, which serves as an education resource. Baker said he would be very excited to serve in the academy.
A family of teachers
It always made sense that Baker would become a teacher, he said. His father, a teacher at the collegiate level, wasn't the real inspiration, though. His first love of study was for science. His first degree was in biology from the University of Evansville (Ind.), and he still has a child-like fascination with the natural world.
He connects to kids' curiosity with toys, always on the search for ones that demonstrate elements of scientific principles that he's teaching. His students think he's just being goofy when he brings out a toy, a deception he revels in once kids realize they've learned something.
"Ha! I taught you something and you didn't even know it," Baker says to himself.
Schweers was responsible for encouraging Baker to teach at the middle school level. That was a time Baker remembers as a shift in the way he viewed school: Schweers got him interested in school, in learning. He was the first to get Baker to think about having a favorite author, and going to the library to find specific books. His first love was for young-adult novelist S.E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders.
While getting his second bachelor's degree at Illinois State University, Baker credits Deborah Curtis, one of his ISU professors, with showing him "the sheer joy in teaching."
But it wasn't until he had his own childrenâ€"now 6, 4 and almost 2â€"that he recognized the tremendous opportunity and responsibility teachers have in kid's lives.
"It's kind of awesome to know you're the individual who's showing them the world," Baker said.
A good start
Baker's transition to teaching couldn't have been easier. He student-taught under Linda Dallam at Emerson Junior High 12 years ago. District 97 hired him the following year, and he taught in the same classroom with the same curriculum he used while student teaching.
Dallam was always there for guidance, and serves as the assistant principal for middle level curriculum until the end of the school year when she will retire. Emerson Junior High is now Brooks Middle School.
After five years at Emerson, Baker went to Irving Elementary, where he taught sixth grade. He made the move with other sixth grade teachers of Julian feeder schools to the middle school two and half years ago.
But the seeds of his nomination for the Golden Apple awardâ€"and a whole lot moreâ€"were planted at Emerson.
Teachers say you never know who you get through to. In his first two years of teaching, Baker got through to Allison Ibarra, then a student, now a teacher at Longfellow Elementary.
It's as good an example as any of "the power of words," Baker said.
Ibarra said what makes Baker special is his commitment to students.
"He will put everything aside for his students," skipping lunch and other breaks to make sure students get it, Ibarra said. He also made learning fun.
Compare that with what Baker said about Schweers, his mentor:
"He really personalized [the material]. He connected with kids, had a great sense of humor, still does, and he spent time with students and made you feel like the time he spent with you was valuable."
Baker knew Ibarra was interested in teaching even back in seventh and eighth grade. She kept in touch while as an education student at the University of Illinois, and would even come by to observe his classroom on her own time.
So when the Golden Apple people asked him to name references in the first letter telling him he'd been nominated, Baker thought Ibarra would be a good sourceâ€"someone who could speak as a former student and now a colleague.
He called her to ask the favor. "I don't know if I can," she said. "I nominated you."
People become teachers for a lot of reasons, but central to all is the desire to make an impact on students' lives, Baker said. Some work their entire careers not realizing what impact they may have.
"The simple fact that in my 11th year of teaching I have a sense of that now is just awesome," Baker said, a glassiness coming over his eyes.
The award, then, is moot.
"I already won," Baker said.