By: Hannah Schneider – College of Education
College of Education alumni Kathy Garneau has been announced as a finalist for the 2020 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching in the state of Illinois.
Garneau started like so many WSU Elementary Education students. She was a freshman in the class of 1990 and knew right from the start she was going to be an elementary school teacher. She graduated as an Elementary Education major with an emphasis in reading. But it didn’t take long before her calling and national recognition would come from work in the STEM field.
When she graduated from WSU, she found her way to Chicago, where she now has been for the past 20 years. She joined the Bannockburn School District in 2003. She said the community there has embraced all 165 students that are taught in the district. This small school district gave Garneau the opportunity to wear many different hats. She is the STEM specialist where she teaches students from kindergarten through 8th grade. She also is an instructional coach and is one of the technology coaches that teaches teachers how to use technology in the classroom. On top of that she is also the librarian.
What made Garneau stand out among so many other teachers was her unique approach to her curriculum development. She said part of that started when she took part in a small webinar that opened her eyes to the concept of teaching students empathy. This inspiration was the first snowflake in the snowball of her success.
She wanted the idea of empathy to be woven into everything she was having her students do. She knew that creating this mindset in young students would have positive long term effects.
“Given that the students I teach, for the most part, have the resources and support from their parents to go to college, I find it even more important to teach them that what they are learning can have an impact on the world in a positive way,” she said.
Things began to snowball when she was creating a 3D printing focused curriculum. She asked herself: how can 3D printing small things teach empathy? How can she go further than just teaching them the skill but also teach them to apply it in a way that betters their community?
She started with teaching her third- and fourth-grade students how to 3D print pieces to fix broken toys. Once they mastered that, she moved them on to Beanie Babies. She taught them how to 3D print braces for all different types of stuffed animals to put over their beaks, legs, and feet.
However, the highlight for Garneau, was when the students finished their projects. She connected her students with engineers who do this as a profession via facetime. The students asked if they could give them their projects to them so they could be given out to the kids who need them.
“It was such a beautiful moment as a teacher. It was deep learning that was connected to their community,” Garneau said. “It is one of those moments where the students understood that STEM is not about them and how it’s about ways, they can improve the world. That is a huge message to give to an 8 year old. And I hope it is something that sticks with them throughout their life.”
When word spread about her work, she was nominated by her principal Adam Mihelbergel for the Golden Apple Award. She soon was asked by the Golden Apple Organization to submit a series of essays. The process continued when they came to observe her teaching, and interviewed parents, students, and other faculty. She then got the call that she was a finalist. Which meant that out of 730 teachers who applied in the state of Illinois, she was recognized as part of the top 30.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this award ceremony, which announces the 10 winners, has been postponed. However, that hasn’t damped Garneau’s attitude.
“I am so honored to make the top 30. Being in my position as a STEM specialist in the school district, people don’t always recognize what you are doing,” Garneau said. “To have my principal acknowledge me just through the nomination was amazing and it was so humbling. But then to have the Gold Apple Award organization recognize me was amazing because they even don’t know me.”
So, what is next for Garneau? She plans on continuing working with her students in full force. She wants to continue her learning, growing, and training. She also will be presenting her work at other conferences at the end of the year.
Garneau’s passion for teaching STEM is the core of this recognition.
“One of the very cool things about teaching STEM is that the kids who really excel and shine are sometimes the ones that really struggle in other areas,” she said. “As a teacher part of my job is to find those students and love them for that. To give them that unconditional encouragement. Because doing that gives them the mindset that they can do great things. When you have someone, who believes in you like that, it gives you the motivation to be better.
“That’s what being a teacher is all about.”