Seth Baker had convinced himself he hadn't won the Golden Apple Award. Told winners would be notified in early March, the first week came and went without a word.
So when school and Golden Apple officials burst into his sixth-grade science classroom at Julian Middle School last Wednesday morning with a basket of apples, he thought, what a nice gesture for finalists who didn't win.
"It didn't hit me until I saw my wife with our two daughtersâ€"that's when I realized this really did happen," Baker said.
Baker was named one of 10 winners of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. This year, 747 teachers, grades 4-8, from Cook, DuPage and Lake counties were nominated. The grade levels available for the award rotates on a three-year cycle. Last year, Oak Park and River Forest High School physics teacher Aaron Podolner won the award.
Five other District 97 teachers have won, including Mary Walsh Farmar, Jackie Lopushonsky, Jenny Knight, Kerri Druckmiller and Denita Farmer.
To select winners, a team of Chicago-area educators travel to finalists' schools to interview colleagues, parents and students and to observe classroom teaching.
A Golden Apple observer said Baker is "a child-centered teacher. ... His classroom had an atmosphere of respect and safety that is not often found."
Baker was nominated by a former pupil, Allison Ibarra, who is now a teacher at Longfellow Elementary School.
Exuberance almost spoiled surprise
When a Julian administrator called Baker's wife, Caroline, at home, she exclaimed, "He won!" within earshot of their 4-year-old, Audrey. Audrey then got a lesson in how to keep a secret, Baker said.
Quoting Audrey: "There were times when I wanted to tell pupa, but I just kept my mouth shut real tight."
Julian Principal Victoria Sharts learned March 1 that Baker won. To avoid temptation or a slip, she avoided Baker for the intervening week, he said. Baker had wanted to sit down with her and thank her for everything she'd done to help him be chosen as a finalist, but she just never seemed to have a minute, he said.
That morning was supposed to be dedicated to the administration of standardized testing. Baker was trying to get his students in the right test mindset, and then the announcement and pandemonium came.
Afterward, he explained the award to his class, and got them back into test mode. Then there was silence.
"In some ways it was an awkward day to have it happen, but in others, it was a way to catch my breath," Baker said.
Award doesn't reflect collaboration
After he'd had time to reflect, he echoed what he told WEDNESDAY JOURNAL in February: that he couldn't have won a teaching award without the teachers, mentors and colleagues he's had throughout his career.
"It's kind of funny that it's an individual award," Baker said in February. "It gives the impression that what we do in the classroom is somehow isolated."
Instead, Baker said, any award he receives represents the confluence of every teacher he's worked with during his 11-year career.
"It would be wrong for me to take accolades of Golden Apple without making perfectly clear that ... it is collaborative in every way," Baker said.
So, in a nod to sharing:
â€˘ Baker credits Dan Schweers, his sixth grade teacher, with the original motivation to become a teacher. He forwarded a WEDNESDAY JOURNAL article about his being selected a finalist to Schweers, who forwarded it to all 900 employees in the district where he is superintendent.
â€˘ Baker's parents were "thrilled beyond words" that he won, he said. Dad is a professor at Illinois State University.
â€˘ In response to a congratulatory e-mail from Linda Dallam, assistant principal for middle school curriculum and the science teacher Baker student-taught under, Baker replied that he modeled much of his teaching after Dallam's own instruction techniques.
â€˘ Rebecca Williams and Sharen Young, who round out Baker's team of teachers at Julian, helped set up the surprise by moving back the start time for standardized testing in the three classrooms. Baker never second-guessed the move.
"If people feel [that I'm an exceptional teacher], it's only a reflection of them," Baker said. "The spotlightâ€"if there's one on meâ€"needs to be a much larger beam of light to shine on a larger group of people."
You won what?
At first, Baker's students thought all he'd won was the basket of apples presented to him last week.
But each of the 10 winners will receive a tuition-free fall sabbatical at Northwestern University; an Apple computer; $2,500; and induction into the Golden Apple Academy.
When Baker told his class about the prizes, students were shocked to learn that going to school could be a reward (Oh ... you have to go to school?), he said.
The question gave him the opportunity to explain that learning is "a really great thing."
"Learning is addictive," Baker said. "It feeds itself."
He looks forward to returning in January 2006.
The experience "can't do anything but get you better prepared and excited about coming back," Baker said.
The time and energy usually spent at work is expected to be put into learning and study, so Baker doesn't expect to have any free time to catch up on other things.
An award ceremony will honor the winners on May 7 at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. The event will be televised and will air as a one-hour primetime special on WTTW/Channel 11.