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Highlighting Four of Our Golden Apple Award Finalists

12 April 2024

Meet our Golden Apple finalists from Poe Classical School, Waters Elementary School, Stock Elementary School, and Marquette Elementary School!

Golden Apple Teachers

We always say that “The Best Are With CPS,” and nothing reflects that saying more than our Golden Apple Award finalists. This year, 12 outstanding CPS educators were named finalists, and we’re spotlighting all of them this week (click here and here to read our other two features)! 

In this feature, we’re helping you get to know Ms. Amanda McMonigal from Poe; Mrs. Olga Nunez-Johnson from Waters; Ms. Becky O’Hearn from Stock; and Ms. Melissa Pantoja from Marquette. Each of them shares a commitment to helping their students grow both inside and outside of the classroom. Meet them below!


What keeps you coming back to teaching and your school year after year? 

Ms. McMonigal: Our school is one class per grade level, so I’ve known our current eighth-grade students since they were five. I also know the parents really well. Our students are very gifted, and their parents are very involved. My colleagues have become some of my best friends. My whole career has been at Poe, and I’m grateful for that because I view it as a hidden gem on the South Side. 

Mrs. Nunez-Johnson: There are so many people at Waters to brainstorm things with and make things happen. I love the students, the parents, the administration, and my colleagues. It’s a really nice community, and it’s also really fun because there are so many things going on. 

Ms. O’Hearn: I couldn't imagine a job that doesn't involve working with young children. I get to provide them with their first school experience, and I want nothing but the best for them to start them off right. I am so happy that I landed at Stock. It’s a pre-K only school, and it focuses on play-based instruction and inclusion, which are both things I am very passionate about. 

Ms. Pantoja: It has a lot to do with the community and especially the staff. They are very dedicated to both the parents and the students. They’re very hands-on and involved, and they love to help whoever needs help. This really allows our students to grow. 

How do you think your students would describe you? 

Ms. McMonigal: A lot of them tell me that they love play, so I do a lot of that in my classroom. They also love my guided math approach. When I ask them about their favorite subject, a lot of them will say math. Students have also told me that kindergarten helped them become writers. 

Mrs. Nunez-Johnson: They would definitely describe me as energetic. I always have an activity up my sleeve for them and am also very caring. I also love it when students have an opportunity to teach each other about their cultural backgrounds. It’s so important for me to bring culture into the classroom. 

Ms. O’Hearn: My students would say I'm nice, I'm their friend, and that they love playing with me. They sometimes say that they don't learn anything, because they just play! This is actually a compliment because I implement learning targets every day through their play—they just don't realize they're learning! 

Ms. Pantoja: I think they would say that I’m very fun and funny. They love how I dress and know that I love rainbows. I also have a lot of energy and am very lovable because I love hugs. 

What are some of your favorite memories of being a teacher? 

Ms. McMonigal: They all have to do with my colleagues. We’re a family for sure. If we’re in public together, we might be a little loud and obnoxious, and we’re always having a lot of fun. I also love the parent and family involvement that I’ve seen over the years. Our parents trust and believe in me and the other teachers at our school. 

Mrs. Nunez-Johnson: I love connecting with my students through story time as well as music and dance. Every Friday, we dance to “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, a tradition that started while teaching online during the pandemic. This is part of our “Boogie Oogie Time” that we have daily. With story time, we have parents come to our classroom to read a story when it is their child’s birthday. This really builds a great sense of community. 

Ms. O’Hearn: My favorite memories of being a teacher are any kind of experience that the children talk about long after it happened. One of my favorite teaching moments is hatching baby chicks in an incubator in our classroom every spring. The awe and excitement as they learn about the life cycle of chickens and then get to witness them hatch is so fun to see. 

Ms. Pantoja: I’m from Brighton Park and attended CPS, but I didn’t want to become a teacher at first. I was actually going into the medical field to be an ultrasound technician. I joined Marquette as a special education classroom assistant, and I will never forget how working with little kids just melted my heart. I think back to those memories when I think about my career in education. 

How did you react to being named a Golden Apple Finalist? 

Ms. McMonigal: I was shocked that I was even recommended. As part of the process, I had to write essays that made me reflect on my teaching. I certainly think that one of the reasons that I am a finalist is because I’m a National Board Certified Teacher. I was so honored to receive this recognition, and I believe there are so many more teachers who deserve it just as much as I do. 

Mrs. Nunez-Johnson: I almost want to cry because it is so exciting and a dream come true. I’ve worked so hard, and teaching is something I really love to do. It’s my passion. When I learned I was a finalist, I had just dropped my students off for gym. I ran back inside the gym to tell them the news, and they all started screaming and jumping up and down. 

Ms. O’Hearn: I was totally shocked and very flattered when I learned that I was nominated. I've been teaching for over 20 years, and I just thought I would keep doing what I love to do in my little corner of the city until I retired. I never expected to be recognized for it, but I decided that this is a great opportunity for me to stress the importance of early childhood education and inclusion for our children.   

Ms. Pantoja: I was very surprised because I was not expecting it at all. It was great to know that my community likes me and likes what I am doing with our students. Being recognized and being validated feels very nice. 

What is a message you always want your students to remember? 

Ms. McMonigal: We have a saying in our classroom: “I can’t do it…yet.” I want them to know that when you try and you keep practicing, you will be rewarded. 

Mrs. Nunez-Johnson: Never give up and always believe in your dream. Persevere no matter how hard something is. 

Ms. O’Hearn: My students should know that I love them like they are my own children. They are a part of me and how I teach, and they have helped me become who I am. 

Ms. Pantoja: They are the most amazing kids ever. I love them so much. They should never forget to use their voices and speak their minds.

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