Uproarious cheers from students in Classroom A-19 could be heard down the hall of South Building at Homewood-Flossmoor High School Tuesday afternoon Catherine Ross-Cook learned she is one of 10 teachers in Illinois receiving the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.
The award honors outstanding teachers for their role in building a stronger, better-educated society. She receives a $5,000 award and a spring sabbatical to study at Northwestern University. She will be featured on a special program on Golden Apple recipients airing on PBS.
When representatives of Golden Apple approached with signs in her honor, Ross-Cook was in disbelief.
“Are you serious?” she asked, as tears started to well in her eyes. The students continued cheering another minute or two before posing for a picture with their English teacher.
Ross-Cook was selected from more than 500 Illinois high school teacher nominees. The field was whittled down to 32 finalists before the winners were named this week.
“There are so many wonderful teachers, and it was an honor to be a finalist. This is an absolute honor,” she told Golden Apple staff who congratulated her.
As her students hugged her, Ross-Cook said: “I couldn’t be the kind of teacher I am without my (student) golden apples.”
“She’s very demanding. She wants their best, but she’s also giving her best to them,” said Penny Lundquist, a retired English teacher and member of the selection committee. That kind of mutual respect is “the kind of teaching we like to honor,” Lundquist added.
Ross-Cook is the fourth Golden Apple winner from H-F. She has been on staff for 14 years. She came to H-F with a master’s degree in English, but she didn’t have teaching credentials, so she rotated through jobs in various departments.
“No matter what her title, she took it as an important title. She was always engaged with kids and engaged with teachers in a professional manner,” said Superintendent Von Mansfield, who encouraged her to become a teacher. “That special look, that special talk. That special way to do things is what stuck out.”
Ross-Cook has been in the classroom for nine years. This year she’s teaching Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition to seniors and three sections of freshman English.
Janet Daniels, chair of the English Department, said her colleague is “incredibly intelligent, incredibly student centered. She knows just how to relate to kids so that they respond. She shows them their abilities and empathizes with them. She really makes that connection with them.”
“I wasn’t really into English, it felt like more of a duty than a passion. But now being here, she shows me new ways to look at literature,” said senior Jaylin Beal, a student in Ross-Cook’s AP class. “And not just as a teacher, she’s an amazing person. She’s taught me things in general that no other teacher has. I thank God for her and I hope she continues to inspire young people.”
Golden Apple was founded in 1985. Its mission is to innovate teacher preparation and leadership to transform both the careers of teachers, as well as the lives of students in Illinois. It also sponsors the Golden Apple Scholars Program for teacher preparation.