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Becky O'Hearn, a special education Pre-K teacher at Frederick Stock School, received a Golden Apple Award on May 10, 2024. Credit: Molly DeVore/Ecoglobalsociety

EDISON PARK — Becky O'Hearn has dedicated her career to early childhood education.

The special education preschool teacher at Frederick Stock School, 7507 W. Birchwood Ave., gets to know each of her students, learns their interests and abilities and then develops an educational plan that works for them. A proponent of play-based instruction, O'Hearn said her pre-K students usually don't even realize they're learning.

“They think they’re just playing, but everything has a targeted learning outcome,” O'Hearn said.

On Friday, O'Hearn's careful lesson plan was interrupted as students and staff surprised her with the prestigious Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“Hip-hip hooray! Hip-hip hooray! Hip-hip hooray,” a room full of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds shouted as O'Hearn was given the award.

O'Hearn, who has been teaching for 22 years, was one of 10 Illinois educators to receive the award this year. O'Hearn was selected from a pool of more than 600 nominees.

YouTube video

The Golden Apple award comes with a $5,000 prize and a spring sabbatical provided by Northwestern University. Award recipients also become Fellows of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, a group that helps mentor teachers starting out in the profession.

The Golden Apple Foundation started in Chicago in 1985. The award program opened up to teachers from across the entire state in 2019. Over the past two years, Golden Apple has expanded to New Mexico and Michigan.

Eight Chicago teachers honored this month included educators in Lincoln Square, Wicker Park and Grand Crossing. O'Hearn was the last to receive her award.

“I've been watching all the videos of the winners for the past two weeks,” O'Hearn said. “I really thought I didn't win.”

O'Hearn's husband was looped in the day before the surprise.

“The last 24 hours have been very tense,” Jamie O'Hearn said. “I almost broke into tears when I found out because I was so happy. She's just an incredible educator. I've never seen anyone that's this devoted to their job.”

Becky O'Hearn, a special education Pre-K teacher at Frederick Stock School, received a Golden Apple Award on May 10, 2024. Credit: Molly DeVore/ Ecoglobalsociety

Even though O'Hearn has always loved kids, teaching wasn't initially on her radar, she said.

“I thought being a teacher meant you had to teach all the way up to eighth grade,” O'Hearn said. “I only wanted to teach little kids.”

While studying at Bradley University, she found an early childhood education program. She also got a special education certificate and began teaching in a blended kindergarten — a classroom that includes special education students and general education students.

O'Hearn has been team-teaching in a blended pre-K classroom at Frederick Stock for eight years. She helps develop her student's individualized education plans, which provide a sort of “manual so this child can be successful,” she said.

O'Hearn said there is “a much wider acceptance” for blended classrooms now.

“When I first started teaching, kids who had IEPs were separated or were just treated differently in general,” O'Hearn said. “It's really an exciting and rewarding job. I really want the world to accept all children no matter what. All brains are different and they are all beautiful.”

Becky O'Hearn (far right), a special education Pre-K teacher at Frederick Stock School, received a Golden Apple Award on May 10, 2024. Credit: Molly DeVore/ Ecoglobalsociety

O'Hearn said being at Frederick Stock has helped her thrive as a teacher. The Edison Park pre-K school has about 255 students and serves kids ages 3-5.

Ann McNally, Stock's principal, said the school is like a family and O'Hearn goes the extra mile to make sure her classroom is inclusive.

“Everyone's welcome in her educational world, and you can see she just loves teaching,” McNally said.

When people ask O'Hearn how she's been able to teach for so long, she tells them about the three Ps.

“All you really need is puppets, Play-Doh and patience,” O'Hearn said. “Some songs might help, too.”

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