Taking a job at Homewood-Flossmoor High School changed Catherine Ross-Cook’s life. Now she is one of 32 finalists from across Illinois nominated for the 2019 Golden Apple Award given in recognition of excellence in teaching.
After earning a master’s degree in English at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, Catherine Ross-Cook took some time off to decide whether to pursue a doctorate degree.
She took a job at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. It changed her life.
Over a five-year period, Ross-Cook served as an instructional aide in the field house. Next, she was a supervisor in the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) and after that, a dean’s assistant.
“I met students in such an array of facets, that (Superintendent) Dr. (Von) Mansfield encouraged me to go back for my teaching certificate,” she said. That suggestion stuck with her.
Ross-Cook remembered working for a magazine, dealing with proposals and marketing. At H-F, she saw a career track that would offer her something different. At H-F “our product is people. Our product is growth. Our product is one that we connect to and that we see ourselves in and that we can learn from,” she said.
Ross-Cook got that teaching certificate, substitute taught for a time and then filled an opening in the English department. She’s been a faculty member for nine years.
She is one of 32 finalists from across Illinois nominated for the 2019 Golden Apple Award given in recognition of excellence in teaching. Being named a finalist is overwhelming, but she adds, “I’m super stoked.”
This semester she’s teaching three sections of freshman English and two sections of Advanced Placement Literature and Composition to seniors.
She is a gregarious teacher describing herself as “energetic and crazy with my kids.” Her classroom is welcoming. A couch, purple rugs and bean bags crowd into the space with the typical desks.
As much as Ross-Cook loves English, she knows that her AP students aren’t likely to go off to the University of Wisconsin for English lit and poetry classes, like she did. She does her best to get them to recognize the value of the written word.
“This class is the power of language, the power of having a narrative; what it means to have voice, what it means to not have voice. Understanding the various semantics behind it,” Ross-Cook said. “Literature may not be your thing. Let’s talk about how we’re going to use this for real life applications. That’s how I approach it.
“You may not pick up another Shakespearean text or care less about poetry, I get it,” she said. “But I guarantee you at some point in your life if you buy a car, a house, you will have to read (a contract) and you will have to understand that that comma is there for a reason. That period makes it mean something. That word choice carries a different meaning, depending on how you read it. We’re talking about unpacking all the various meanings in a text. That’s what you have to do in life.”
Ross-Cook fondly remembers Candy Dinwiddie, her English teacher at Rich Central High School, who gave her confidence as a writer, and Mansfield, who convinced her that she had what it takes to work with high school students telling her: “This is where you will see your passion make change.”
Her message to students thinking about a career in teaching is simple: “If you want to be a teacher, have a love and true passion for young people and (be) willing to bring yourself to that table.”
“There are days I go home spent because I give a lot here,” she said. “I’m not that teacher that clocks in and clocks out.”