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Golden Apples sound like something out of a fairy tale. Would you believe that Waverly actually has four Golden Apples? They aren’t fruit, but smart, dedicated new teachers who have graduated from the Golden Apples program. 

By Lisa Cannon

Waverly's Golden Apples

The initiative, which was founded in Illinois and is starting up in New Mexico, is an accelerator program that gives high school students, college freshman, and career changers a structure and support to quickly enter the teaching profession. Illinois has more than 2,000 teacher vacancies in public schools K-12. This number has grown since the pandemic, which led many teachers to retire early or even quit. So, the time is right to grow a new crop of teachers and Golden Apple is doing just that. We had the pleasure of talking with Waverly’s Golden Apples and some highlights of these conversations follow. Note: Olin Kingston, one of our four Golden Apples, is covered in the 'More Than a Game' story.

Illinois has more than 2,000 teacher vacancies in public schools K-12. So, the time is right to grow a new crop of teachers and Golden Apple is doing just that.
Caitlin Smith
Ellie Abell
Heather Johnson

Caitlin Smith teaches history to middle and high schoolers. Her classes aren’t “your parents’ history class,” but exciting, hands-on adventures.  Whether students are on a field trip to a local historical site; making “mind maps” of their towns; or reading great books, Ms. Smith makes sure that they are engaged and interested in the subject. 


She herself comes from a family of history buffs in Jacksonville. She knew from an early age that she loved history and wanted to study it. Becoming an educator is something she came into almost by chance but she feels like she has found her true passion in teaching history, noting that she “can’t think of a better job.” . It's almost as if she can’t believe she gets paid to keep learning and feeding her own curiosity while inspiring the same in her students.  


Caitlin recognizes and appreciates how lucky she is to have a supportive professional community at Waverly. She feels trusted and empowered to be creative and try new things. She has developed a class on local history and is building a curriculum for a new course on learning about history by reading “great books that they won’t be able to put down.” Ms. Smith wants her students to fall in love with history, and learning in general. Her hope is that Waverly students are given information about their post-secondary options early and often. She advises them that money isn’t always a barrier—there are plenty of scholarships and other programs to help finance an education.


Caitlin loves teaching at Waverly and is impressed by her students’ deep knowledge of their local community: “it is etched into their souls.” 


Heather Johnson is Waverly’s music teacher and talks to us from a storage area for instruments (aka “her office”).  Ms. Johnson is bubbling over with energy, ideas and plans for building the music program and inspiring students to love music. She tells us that the Golden Apples program requires graduates to teach in Illinois schools of high need (economic and/or academic) for five years in exchange for the generous financial aid and training it provides. She has no plans to quit after that because she’s “having the time of her life.” 


Heather grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and attended very large public schools. She knew that she didn’t want to teach in a big school so she moved to her grandparents’ home in Smithfield to look for work in a small, rural school. Every Sunday she drives 1 ½ hours each way to attend church with them.  The Nazarene Church has been a big part of Heather’s life and informed her choice of college—Olivet University—which was founded by the church. 


Heather participated in many musical classes and extracurriculars as a student and is eager to provide her pupils with these same opportunities. In the Spring she will be launching a school band. Now, she is busy preparing for the Christmas Concert. She wants music to give her students joy and be a bright part of their day. She also helps them see that music can be a safe space, an escape, and a place to be with other kids who might be a little “out of the box,” as she was. Ms. Johnson loves that music is a universal language and told us that she has seen this in how students who are differently abled, and those who speak English as a second language can connect to music. 


A surprising fact about Ms. Johnson: She is hearing impaired. Having gone through several surgeries and treatments she has done as much as medically possible and accepted the fact that she may still go deaf in the future. However, she is not worried. Music is such an integral part of her life that she knows she will always have it. After all, she said, “Beethoven was deaf!”


Ellie Abell teaches a full course load of math: everything from Algebra to Calculus. When asked if she was a “math geek” in high school she nods her head vigorously and says, “Oh yeah, I was too much!”  Her father always knew she would be into math. He told her that at age three she would sit on the front stoop at Halloween and make a tally of how many Trick or Treaters came to the house. Both parents inspired a love of education in their daughter. Dad is a school superintendent in a nearby district. 


Ms. Abell thought she wanted to go into a career based on math, and aimed to earn a good salary as an actuary (a job in the insurance industry that she described as “figuring out when people are going to die”). But after several failed attempts at the licensing exam she decided it was not what she wanted to do with her life. A job at a summer camp showed her that she loved working with kids and she became interested in teaching.  The Golden Apples program helped pay for her college education (they provide up to $23,000 in grants) and gave her a jump start in training and teaching via their summer institutes in Chicago. Ms. Abell draws on her own experience to reassure students that they don’t have to know exactly what they want to be and it is OK to switch gears. Her priority as a teacher is to help them find something that they really enjoy and then guide them towards understanding how they can achieve their goals. 


As we wrapped up, we reminded her that we would be coming to the school the next day to take pictures. She responded: “OK, I have to look cute tomorrow!”


Know someone who might be interested in becoming a Golden Apple? They can find out more on their website,

Olin Kingston
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