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GRAND CROSSING — When Precious Allen heard someone announce her name at Betty Shabazz Academy this month, her first thought was, “Oh my God, am I in trouble?”

Allen, a second-grade teacher, had avidly watched Facebook videos of the Golden Apple Foundation surprising educators with the Excellence in Teaching Award. She thought the nonprofit had already visited all its award-winning teachers and was now sharing the videos on social media.

Then she saw camera crews flood her school.

“It was so surreal,” Allen said. “I was floored. I couldn’t believe it.”

Allen received the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching on May 1. The award celebrates exceptional teachers “for having lasting, positive effects on students’ lives and school communities,” according to the foundation. Allen's mother and daughter joined the surprise.

Precious Allen, a second grade teacher at Betty Shabazz Academy in Grand Crossing, received the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching on May 1. Credit: Golden Apple Foundation
Precious Allen, a second grade teacher at Betty Shabazz Academy in Grand Crossing, received the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching on May 1. Credit: Golden Apple Foundation

Golden Apple received over 600 nominations of pre-K to third-grade teachers for the award. Allen was one of 10 teachers across Illinois selected for the prestigious honor.

Along with a bouquet of gourmet chocolate-covered apples, Allen received a $5,000 cash award and a free spring sabbatical provided by Northwestern University. She’ll also become a Golden Apple Academy of Educators Fellow, which trains the next generation of educators as Illinois faces a teacher shortage.

Allen has been a teacher for 12 years and a second-grade teacher for 10 years, she said. She joined Betty Shabazz Academy, 7823 S. Ellis Ave., five years ago.

One motto gets her out of bed five days a week.

“I try to be the teacher that I wish I had,” she said.

Students celebrate as Precious Allen, a second grade teacher at Betty Shabazz Academy in Grand Crossing, receives the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching on May 1. Credit: Golden Apple Foundation

Allen always had a “strong passion for science,” she said.

Growing up, Allen wanted to be a pediatrician, but she didn’t have a guide to stress the importance of standardized testing or explain what pre-med courses were, Allen said. She studied interior design before landing in elementary education.

Allen finds ways to incorporate her love for science, technology, engineering and mathematics into her second-grade curriculum, Allen said. That work has been “a million times more rewarding” than a career in medicine, she said.

“I’ve had some really good teachers, but I never had a teacher that made me think of my career at such a young age,” Allen said. “It was always, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be this,’ instead of, ‘I can start practicing and fine-tuning my skills now.’ I try to be that for my students.”

Precious Allen, a second grade teacher at Betty Shabazz Academy in Grand Crossing, received the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching on May 1. Credit: Golden Apple Foundation

If you visit Allen’s classroom at Betty Shabazz Academy, you might find students dissecting starfish or learning about animals’ circulatory systems and comparing them to the human body’s.

Allen’s lessons are what you might see in a high school classroom or a college lecture hall. Her second-grade students are learning forensic science and bioengineering, Allen said.

“Once I get through the basics of understanding science is not gross, it’s really cool, they’re pretty hooked,” Allen said. “At this age, they’re slime fanatics, so it’s easy to reel them in. And they’re not squeamish whatsoever.”

Similar to how a child might play a sport or learn to dance at an early age to improve over time, Allen is teaching her students an advanced curriculum so they’re prepared early for a “globally competitive world,” she said.

Precious Allen, a second grade teacher at Betty Shabazz Academy in Grand Crossing, received the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching on May 1. Credit: Golden Apple Foundation

“To me, it’s important to give my students that head start at a very young age so that when they get to middle or high school, they’ve already done it,” Allen said. “They have the practice and they’re ready for the next level.”

Every day at Betty Shabazz Academy is a new adventure. But through STEM lessons, fun experiments and conversations about equity and privilege, Allen hopes to expose her students to a world beyond their doorstep, she said.

“I hope to continue to get my students to see that the South Side of Chicago is not the world,” Allen said. “That Chicago is not the world. That there’s a world out there of opportunity where you can make a difference.”

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Atavia Reed is a reporter for Ecoglobalsociety, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis