Near North teacher wins Golden Apple Award
Latin School of Chicago teacher honored as one of Chicago area's best
05/10/2012 7:16 PM
At around 1:30 p.m. last Thursday, the students in Bryan Jackson’s third grade class were just getting settled into their post-recess routine of “quiet reading,” an exercise that Jackson uses to ease his kids into the remainder of the school day.
But that transition back into learning was ill-fated, as this would prove to be no normal day at the Latin School of Chicago.
A brief rush of shuffled footsteps could be heard from the hallway, and within seconds, the room was filled with Jackson’s friends, family and fellow teachers. Joined by a TV news crew, the packed-in mob applauded and looked on as the young educator stood with a mix of shock and pride on his face.
“I’ve never seen Bryan speechless before,” said the school’s principal, Sally Ott.
If the 32-year-old Jackson was known for being able to speak on cue, he had met his match in the Golden Apple Excellence in Teaching award, now in his care.
“This is definitely a shock,” Jackson finally managed to muster before his beaming audience. “When the door opened up, I thought it was one of my kids that I had forgotten about.”
Jackson half-jokingly threw on a pair of dark sunglasses to mask the swelling tears in his eyes as he tried to compose himself.
“All the hard work that my kids do is my inspiration to be a better teacher today than I was the day before,” he said.
The award, handed out annually since 1986, honors pre-kindergarten through third grade teachers at schools in the greater Chicago area. Jackson was among the some 600 teachers nominated for the award this year, and one of only 32 who made it to the semifinal stage.
Other recipients of this year’s Golden Apple awards included teachers at Oscar DePriest Elementary, Norwood Park Elementary and St. Malachy School.
“Your Mr. Jackson was one of the ten best that we were so proud to honor this year,” Golden Apple CEO Dominic Belmonte told the Latin School students.
Up until that point, the students in the room — though obviously excited by the unexpected turn of events — acted as most kids do when adults tell them that something important is happening: some continued to flip through their books, while others rested their heads in their hands and maintained a cheerful ambivalence as to what was happening.
But when they learned of the odds that their teacher had been up against, the floodgates opened up on their end as well.
“How about gathering around for a group hug?” Belmonte barely managed to suggest before a mountain of children rushed to form around Jackson.
“I want to be on TV!” one student exclaimed.
“This is so awesome!” another shouted.
And then, the unexplainable happened. One of the students, with tears streaming down her face, grabbed a play microphone and began singing to her still-stunned teacher. Nearly every other kid, and even a few of the adults, quickly joined in.
“You don’t know/Oh oh/You don’t know you’re beautiful!” the makeshift chorus sang (The refrain was from “What Makes You Beautiful” by the British boy-band One Direction; readers are encouraged to YouTube this song to fully grasp the dramatic scope of this scene).
“My kids love singing and dancing,” said Jackson. “They can pull off a song in a heartbeat.”
But anyone who has ever been in an elementary school classroom knows that students won’t sing for just any teacher.
Originally from Milwaukee, the Golden Apple winner didn’t always dream of leading a classroom. As an undergrad studying architecture at the University of Minnesota, Jackson enrolled in a class where he was assigned to teach a lesson about the science of bridges to a classroom of elementary school students.
“I took that opportunity and really started to think like a kid,” he said. “I started to ask myself ‘Why would a kid want to sit and listen to me talk about architecture?’”
Where many of his colleagues struck out, Jackson grabbed his pupils’ attention with a theory that he called “cookie tectonics,” in which students used graham crackers, peanut butter and whipped cream to understand the shifting of plates beneath the earth’s crust.
“And then they ate it,” Jackson recalled.
Prompted by encouragement from his teachers and fellow classmates, Jackson transferred to the university’s education program soon after, and the rest was history.
“I began to fall in love with just being around the kids and sharing with them,” he said. “I also enjoyed being a kid, and when they didn’t get it saying ‘Let’s go to recess and forget about, then come back and try it again.’”
After graduating, Jackson landed his first full-time job at the Latin School. He’s now in his eighth year as a teacher there.
Along with this year’s nine other Golden Apple recipients, Jackson received a tuition-free spring quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern University, as well as a $3,000 cash award. Awardees are also given fellowships with foundation’s Academy of Educators.
As of Monday afternoon, Jackson said that the reality of winning the Golden Apple award had yet to sink in — and that was a good thing.
“In a way, I don’t want to accept it yet,” said Jackson. “I really want to still be an ‘adult kid,’ as I call it — an adult in the sense that my stature is big, having this title associated with my name, but a kid in the sense that I’m still going to be learning.”
Photos by ARI NEIDITZ/Contributor