SESP Alumna Named Finalist for Golden Apple Award

SESP Alumna Named Finalist for Golden Apple Award

Gwen FaulknerGwen Faulkner

Gwen Faulkner (MS11), a second-grade teacher at McKenzie Elementary School in Wilmette, is one of 30 finalists for the 2018 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching award.

Faulkner, selected from a record-high 650 nominations, also mentors Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy teaching candidates. She welcomes aspiring teachers into her classroom and serves as a coach for students who are investigating questions they have about teaching and learning as part of their Master’s Project.

“She is so clearly devoted and in love with her job,” said McKenzie parent Alexa Burnell of Wilmette, who helped spearhead the nomination after her daughter’s experience in the class. “But it’s not just a job for her; it’s a way of life.”

The ten winners of the Excellence in Teaching award, which recognizes outstanding Chicago-area educators from prekindergarten to third grade, will be announced in early spring after a final round of classroom observations. Each teacher will receive $5,000 and a tuition-free spring quarter sabbatical at Northwestern to take an unlimited number of courses in any subject.

A second award -- the Stanley C. Golder Leadership Award -- will be given to one Chicago-area pre-K through 12th grade principal or school leader. The winner receives a cash award of $10,000 with $5,000 going toward the administrator’s professional development and $5,000 to the school for a project of the recipient’s choosing.

"Gwen cares deeply about developing a classroom environment in which students feel supported and heard,” said Miriam Sherin, professor of learning sciences and associate dean for teacher education at the School of Education and Social Policy. “She also innovates in her classroom, from the way she organizes the physical space to the kinds of activities her students engage in.”

A native of Northfield, Faulkner was conducting research in a cancer care unit and considering pursuing a doctorate when she realized her passion was teaching.  

After graduating from SESP, Faulkner spent a year teaching preschool in Chicago before moving to McKenzie Elementary School so she could better utilize her elementary education training.

“Regardless of what’s going on in someone’s life, I can offer a sense of stability, safety, and warmth,” she said. “I have control over those 6.5 hours they’re in school.” 

In her classroom – the same one where she completed her student teaching -- Faulkner has kept it magical for her second graders by introducing a class fairy who loves strawberries and by giving students the responsibility to care for stuffed animals. At the same time, she doesn’t shy away from introducing complicated world events and social justice issues.

One social service project involved learning about a non-profit whose goal is to improve the lives of foster care children in the United States. When Faulkner challenged her students to raise $250, to buy supplies for 10 children in the foster care system, the students rallied and earned nearly $700.

Along with the lesson in social responsibility, Faulkner incorporated math and opinion writing, by working on essays on how to make positive changes in the foster care system.

"I hope my students have learned that no matter how young or small they are, they can make a difference right now, they don't have to wait until tomorrow,” Faulkner told the Wilmette Beacon.

In 2015, Faulkner was one of two McKenzie teachers who piloted a flexible learning classroom. Instead of desks, students choose from low tables, countertops, stools, chairs with wheels and of course, the floor. Supplies are stored in low cabinets, making them easily accessible for the youngsters.

Faulkner found the flexible classroom helped with collaboration, made things more student-centered and helped the students take a more active role in their learning.

“The best thing about teaching is there’s so much opportunity for creativity, and that’s what I hope to protect,” Faulkner said.

The 2018 Celebration of Excellence, which honors all the awards finalists, will be 9:15 a.m. to noon on Feb. 24 at the Hilton Rosemont Chicago O’Hare.

Fellow educators, students, parents and community members nominate teachers and school leaders for the awards each year. For more information, visit

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 2/28/18