Kindergarten teacher Meghan Rice honored with Golden Apple Award

Meghan+Rice+talks+into+four+microphones+secured+on+a+multi-microphone+mount.+In+the+bottom+left+corner+is+a+WBEZ+Chicago+reporter%2C+interviewing+Rice.

Nick Francis/Daily Senior Staffer

Willard Elementary School kindergarten teacher Meghan Rice talks to press after winning a prestigious award for teaching. The award ceremony and surprise took place around 9:30 a.m., right after Rice had finished teaching her kindergarten class.

Nick Francis, Copy Chief

Willard Elementary School Kindergarten teacher Meghan Rice was honored with a statewide Golden Apple Excellence in Teaching Award during a ceremony Monday morning. 

Just after she finished class at 9:30 a.m, Rice walked into Willard’s multi-purpose room, where she was celebrated as part of a surprise ceremony. After being greeted by friends, family and more, Golden Apple officials gave her a gift basket and community members showered her with compliments.

As part of the award, Rice will join a cohort of Golden Apple award recipients in training the next generation of Illinois teachers, as part of an initiative to address the state’s teacher shortage. In addition to a cash prize of $5,000, Rice was granted a fully-subsidized sabbatical to take classes at Northwestern for two quarters.

Golden Apple’s selection committee received over 700 applications. They interviewed parents of students and administrators and conducted class observations to select the 10 winners statewide.

A crowd of people. Meghan Rice’s husband and son are crouching down, framed by a journalist and those waiting to congratulate Meghan Rice.
Meghan Rice’s husband and son await entrance to her surprise award. Among the ceremony attendees were Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton and State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (D-Glenview). (Nick Francis/Daily Senior Staffer)

The criteria for the award’s selection is broken down into five categories: instructional practices, cultural competency, civic engagement, growth-mindset evaluation and professionalism, Golden Apple president Alan Mather said. 

“We want to make sure the candidates know that every student can grow,” Mather said. “Not ‘This is not a smart student,’ or ‘This is not a lazy student,’ but everybody can grow.”

Mather said Rice’s focus on equity for disabled students and students of color stood out to the evaluation panel. Her level of engagement with her students also made her an especially qualified candidate, he said.

Rice said engagement can take many different forms during a typical school day. As a singer-songwriter, she would play demos of her songs for her students. They would often give feedback and she would implement her students’ input.

“A lot of times I’ve used their suggestions,” she said, “so then it’s like ‘our song.’”

In a full-circle moment, Rice’s high school music teacher, Diana O’Connor, was also present during the award presentation. O’Connor is a mentor at Golden Apple.

Meghan Rice hugs Diana O’Connor. O’Connor is facing the camera — both are wearing masks.
Willard Elementary School Kindergarten teacher Meghan Rice hugs her high school music teacher, Diana O’Connor, after receiving a statewide honor from Golden Apple. O’Connor, also a mentor for Golden Apple, said it was hard not telling her former student she had won the award, before the information became public. (Nick Francis/Daily Senior Staffer)

O’Connor called Rice “one-of-a-kind,” and said she was humble, gentle and inspiring. She said she was grateful to be there as Rice entered the next part of her life. Even after Rice has long-graduated, they still keep in touch. 

“She’s been so special to me over the years, we have a deep friendship,” O’Connor told The Daily. “There are very few that are like that, that you will have in your life.”

O’Connor said it’s difficult to capture the scope of her love for Rice. She said Rice just “has a light about her.” 

But if Rice had to pinpoint her “magic power,” she said it would be making students feel loved. This is in part what keeps her motivated to pursue teaching in a remote environment — Rice attributed her resolve to her ability to see and connect with the resilience of her students.

“There have been mornings where it’s difficult to get out of bed,” Rice said. “(Students are) the reason I get out of bed, because I know they need me.” She paused, her voice began to shake and her eyes started to water. “And I need them too.”

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