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Byrd students reflect on teacher amid Golden Apple Award nomination

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Relationships come first when you’re a #MagnaFirstie. For Sara Magnafichi, forging those relationships has brought new meaning this year.

The first grade teacher at Admiral Byrd Elementary has put forth every effort to make sure her students and families feel connected, even on virtual platforms, and students have taken notice. 

“She always thinks about you and helps you. She wants you to always have a good day,” said Logan, a first grade student at Byrd. “She is a great teacher to have if you’re feeling a little sad or gloomy.”

Ms. Magnafichi has always prioritized building relationships while teaching a young age group. Her philosophy is that effective learning can come more naturally if there is a sense of trust and an open demeanor in her classroom. 

That effort inspired one parent to nominate Ms. Magnafichi for the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. Each year, the Chicago-based non-profit honors the top educators in the state through a nominations and interview process with students, family members, colleagues, and community members. Golden Apple received a record 708 nominations this year, and have narrowed their field to 32 finalists spanning Pre-Kindergarten through third grade. 

The list will soon be finalized to include a handful of winners, who will then become Fellows of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, a group that plays a key role in preparing the next generation of teachers in the Golden Apple Scholars and Accelerators programs.

The recognition speaks to the effort she has put toward giving her students as much of the full #MagnaFirstie experience as possible since last spring.

“In a year like this, for a parent to take the time to nominate me is unimaginable,” she said. “Everyone has so much on their plate, so this is an honor. None of us could be successful this year without each other’s support. I am truly blessed.” 

Ms. Magnafichi is known for the strong foundation she sets for her students and her desire to maintain relationships throughout the years after they leave her classroom. She is never afraid to inquire about what is happening in a student’s life, celebrate the successes, and help navigate the challenges.

Even students in their final year at Byrd Elementary take notice of the interest she expresses every time they greet in the hall. 

“She has always tried to be there for students whether they’re having a good day or a down day,” said Dylan, a fifth grade student at Byrd. “She asks questions. If you’re having a good day, she wants to know why you’re happy. She always tries to be in your life and part of the conversation. Everything she does, it’s not just for herself or one student, but for every student.”

Inside the classroom, Ms. Magnafichi has also put a consistent focus on improving her students’ reading. She has made a concerted effort to continue that practice for students who could not be in person this year, mailing a handful of books every month to those who may not have access to a library. 

Those gestures, along with the patience she practices as her students work on their literacy skills, are what is remembered in the long run. 

“If you’re struggling to read a certain word, she gives you that extra time to get it. I could not read chapter books when I was in first grade, but now I can,” said Emersyn, a second grade student at Byrd. “I would not be this far with my reading if I did not have her as a teacher.” 

She always tries to be in your life and part of the conversation. Everything she does, it’s not just for herself or one student, but for every student.
-Dylan, Fifth Grade, Admiral Byrd 

Ms. Magnafichi, also a 2019 finalist for the Illinois Teacher of the Year Award, also believes she has sent more classroom communications this year than ever before. Keeping open lines with families and attempting to make each day as expected as possible for her young students is how she has successfully grown her class this year. Whether it’s learning to pronounce a certain word or discussing an issue that is bothering a student, her class responds to her approach.

“Sometimes things can get a little tricky for me. If I find math hard, she knows how to help and then I feel better,” said Zach, a first grade student at Byrd. “She is nice, caring, and a great teacher.” 

While some wait for Golden Apple to reveal the award recipients, Ms. Magnafichi is preparing to be with her students again. As classes move to full days of in-person instruction, she is prepared to take the challenges and triumphs of the school year and use them to her and the students’ advantage.

“We have been guests in student’s households this year. That has allowed us an experience we may never have had access to before,” she said. “We have to build on this experience and use it to move forward in how we do things as educators. Listening to pros and cons from students and parents alike and how we apply those in the future is going to be so impactful.”

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