Meghan Rice is surprised by news that she received a 2021 Golden Apple Award. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

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Willard School kindergarten teacher Meghan Rice thought she was walking into a 10 a.m. meeting with her teaching teammates on May 3. Instead, she was surprised with the prestigious Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. Ms. Rice is one of 10 teachers in Illinois who received this award.

“This was a secret. … We told her we needed her help and input on interviewing. We officially tricked her,” said Ms. Rice’s teammate and fellow kindergarten teacher, Saronita Skipworth.

With remote learning in effect, Willard School was quiet on May 3 – until Ms. Rice entered the school’s multi-purpose room. She was greeted with cheers and applause from her colleagues; her husband, Marques Rice; her five-year-old son, Jaxon; and special guests including District 65 Superintendent Dr. Devon Horton and Illinois State Representative Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, 17th District.

Waving pom-poms and holding congratulatory signs, the group joined Golden Apple in honoring Ms. Rice for demonstrating – in her teaching and results – significant positive impact on her students’ growth and learning.

Golden Apple Award recipient Meghan Rice with her son, Jaxon, and District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

After a highly competitive process, the 2021 teaching award recipients were selected from a record-setting 708 nominations of Pre-K-third grade teachers.

“These outstanding teachers transform the lives of students, schools, and communities over the course of their careers. Their resilience and perseverance in this past year – and their career – has been nothing short of amazing,” said Golden Apple President Alan Mather.

“Our 2021 award recipients will now join us in our mission to impact the lives of even more students by supporting the next generation of highly effective teachers through our two teacher preparation programs – the Golden Apple Scholars and Accelerators programs,” said Mr. Mather.

“I’m really excited to get to work. And I’m super excited to support teachers,” said Ms. Rice when she was surprised by the news.

She was asked how she connects with children amid distance learning.

“I like to say that my magic power is being able to help children feel loved. So even though I couldn’t touch them, and I couldn’t be with them, I’m so intentional about connecting with them, and to their parts – to the things that matter. If that’s little things like Pokémon, or if that’s all the way to having family members in another country – just leaning in with them – singing, dancing, playing, making it fun. Because I think you have to go that extra mile when you don’t have that contact,” said Ms. Rice, who is also an independent recording artist.

“I just love to sing. So we make up songs from things that we learn in class. When I’m working on my own music, I’ll bring it into class when we have free time. I will ask, ‘Do you like this melody? Do you think Ms. Rice should sing it this way?’ And then when I release it, a lot of times I’ve used their suggestions. So then it’s like ours,” said Ms. Rice.

When asked what has motivated her during the pandemic, she became emotional at times.

“I’ve shared it with a few colleagues, but I just think, the resilience of children. …There have been mornings where it’s been really difficult to get out of bed. … But it’s about values. I know that they need me, and that I need them too. So I think that connectedness. That’s something that I’ll take. Because I’ve always valued it, but I value it even more – the consistency of that connectedness,” she said.

Ms. Rice said her second child is due on July 22. Older brother Jaxon will be starting kindergarten in the fall.

“All the things that I’ve taught my kindergarten families to embrace… I’m taking a deep breath myself, because now I need to heed my words,” she said, with a smile and a laugh.

“I’m going to kindergarten soon, and my Mom’s going to have a baby brother. She’ll like that,” Jaxon told the RoundTable.

Jaxon’s father said the Golden Apple award was well deserved.

“She worked so hard. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, a lot of us are at home, but the upshot for me personally has been getting to see her in her element.

“I can understand why someone would, number one, want to nominate her for this award. And number two, in spite of all the hurdles you have to go through to make it to this point and all the other amazing teachers out there, I can understand why someone would say, ‘This is a little different – what she does, and how she does it.’ She pours her heart into teaching. So I’m very proud of her, and very happy she got to experience this,” said Mr. Rice.

Each Golden Apple Award winner receives a $5,000 cash award and a spring sabbatical provided by Northwestern University at no cost. Award recipients also become Fellows of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, a community of educators who play an important role in preparing the next generation of teachers in the Golden Apple Scholars and Accelerators programs,  which are dedicated to addressing the teacher shortage in Illinois.