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Sara Magnafichi, Admiral Byrd, still feeling outpouring of support following Golden Apple Award surprise

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Sara Magnafichi ensures her students are involved in everything that goes on inside the classroom. It was no different when it came to the Golden Apple Award process.

Ever since February, when the first grade teacher at Admiral Byrd Elementary was announced as a finalist for the annual award for Excellence in Teaching, she and her students eagerly waited for the list of 10 recipients to be revealed.

“For weeks, they had been asking when announcements were going to be made, so when Golden Apple started naming the winners, we would watch the videos together each day,” she said.

The tradition at Golden Apple is to drop in for surprise visits at school buildings to celebrate award recipients among their students and colleagues. As such, the anticipation between Ms. Magnafichi and her students grew when they saw the amount of joy in each reveal.

“Oddly enough, our lesson for social emotional learning that first week was on empathy. Watching the daily videos helped them understand the concept of empathy because they could put themselves in the shoes of the students who were celebrating their teachers every day. They would clap and get excited for the teacher and her students, then would do the math to see how many spots were left.”

It naturally became a lesson in patience as well, as Ms. Magnafichi finally became the subject of one of those celebrations on Friday. She was revealed to be the final recipient of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching out of 708 submissions across Illinois.

Students playing outside quickly recognized and pointed out the contingent from Golden Apple following the weeks of buildup, and cheered as they turned the corner to surprise the class. Ms. Magnafichi was soon surrounded by excited students, family, fellow staff, and banners from Golden Apple depicting her new title.

“In that moment, tunnel vision kicked in and everything was a blur. When we made it back into my classroom, we quickly joined Zoom to share the news with our classmates who are remote. They all had me autograph their signs that Golden Apple gave them, we had a dance party and air hugs, and I had to explain to them that my tears were tears of happiness and excitement.”

Golden Apple President Alan Mather described to the group what impressed them about Ms. Magnafichi and her approach to students, including what was written in the initial nomination letter from an Admiral Byrd parent.

“We are thrilled that we are able to recognize the incredible work she does,” he said. “As we learned from her father as well, she was born to teach. She believes in every student and teaching the whole child. She understands that addressing social emotional issues is how you get where you want to go, and she celebrates her students’ differences. It shows she has a growth mindset about everyone, including herself.”

Despite the whirlwind of events, she immediately put the focus on her students when speaking to media members. She described them as her “why” and how the award is equally about them. Ms. Magnafichi felt that appreciation reciprocated when her students shared the news with parents as they left school. Former students, their family members, and past teachers of Ms. Magnafichi also reached out to share their congratulations throughout the weekend, including Jim Arey, an Elk Grove High School teacher that also won the Golden Apple Award when Ms. Magnafichi was a senior.

The honor and outpouring of support comes as little surprise to those who work closest to her and have seen the effort she puts into the Admiral Byrd school community.

“I have watched Sara grow and develop into the amazing educator she has become, and to have witnessed what a positive impact she has had on so many students, families and colleagues, it made Friday such a proud moment,” said Mary Ellen Esser, Principal at Admiral Byrd. “This was an exciting journey for Sara and her students this year, and it was fitting that they shared it together.”

Ms. Magnafichi now becomes a Fellow of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, a community that plays an important role in preparing the next generation of teachers in the Golden Apple Scholars and Accelerators programs, which aims to address the teacher shortage in Illinois. She also receives a sabbatical at Northwestern University and a $5,000 cash award.

“I have been blessed with strong leaders in the field of education who teach me every day. They push me in amazing ways to be a better teacher, leader, and human,” Ms. Magnafihci said. “Building strong relationships and making each student know their worth and value has always been one of the strongest foundations within my classroom, and I cannot wait to help share with new teachers how that foundation truly makes everything else possible.”

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