When George Vlasis received a letter notifying him that he had been nominated for a Golden Apple, the annual prize that honors top teachers in the Chicago area, he almost didn’t bother responding to the Golden Apple Foundation’s request for more information.
“I always thought of the Golden Apples as such a high honor that I thought there was no way I could ever win one,” said Vlasis, a kindergarten teacher at Hough Street Elementary School in Barrington who earned his master’s at Elmhurst in 2007. “I mean, that’s an award for stars. Not me.”
Vlasis can now officially consider himself as part of the constellation of outstanding teachers in Chicago. He learned that he had won a 2015 Golden Apple award during a surprise ceremony in his classroom on May 12. Vlasis—or Mr. George, as his kindergarteners call him—was one of 10 award winners selected from among a field of 600 nominees.
Vlasis responded to the nomination letter at the insistence of his colleagues at Hough Street School—and it’s a good thing he did. Each award winner receives a tuition-free sabbatical to study at Northwestern University and a $5,000 award. Vlasis and the other winners will be formally recognized in an October gala, televised on Chicago’s WTTW-TV.
A citation from the Golden Apple Foundation praised Vlasis as “an active listener and observer” who “creates a warm, welcoming family-friendly environment” in his classroom. At the start of each school year, Vlasis spends an hour with each of his students’ families to discuss the year ahead. He also hosts monthly Dad’s Nights and introduces students to their community by taking them to the local farmer’s market and to local businesses.
“We’re super excited and yet not surprised,” Hough Street School Principal Jim Aalfs told the Golden Apple Foundation about the award. “George is such a unique and tender person.”
Vlasis became interested in teaching only after he had begun studying business and marketing at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. As a volunteer in a Dubuque preschool, Vlasis found that he enjoyed working with children.
“I could see what a difference you could make with children,” he said. “And so I started asking myself, ‘Do I really want to sit at a desk for the rest of my life?’”
Told by his professors at Loras that he had a talent for teaching, he took their advice and applied for the master’s degree program in early childhood special education at Elmhurst. His first postings after graduate school were in special education classrooms, but nine years ago, he went to the Hough Street School to teach kindergarten. He has been there ever since.
Vlasis figures he has taught nearly 400 students during his tenure there. He is the school’s only kindergarten teacher, so just about every one of its graduates began their schooling with him. His first students at the school are now working their way through high school.
“He is their first experience of what Hough Street School is,” Aalfs told the Golden Apple Foundation. “And it couldn’t be a better experience.”
“One of the special things about my job is that I get to watch the children grow up right in front of me,” Vlasis said.
Vlasis is just the latest Chicago-area teacher educated at Elmhurst to win high honors. Earlier this year, Jessica Vaillancourt ’07 of Elgin High School was named Illinois Outstanding Young Teacher of the Year by the Illinois Communication and Theatre Association. Susan Brown ’76 of Elmhurst’s York High School received the 2014 T.E. Rine Secondary Mathematics Teaching Award from the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics. And Tracy McDonald ’10 of Hinsdale South High School received the 2014 Davidson Award honoring outstanding high-school chemistry teaching by the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois and the Illinois Chemical Education Foundation.
Vlasis’s approach to teaching is based partly on following the lead of his students. He likes to encourage his students’ natural curiosity and eagerness to learn.
“If they want to talk about transportation and I want to teach math, well, let’s create a unit around math in transportation,” he said. “I try to invest in the kids’ ideas. The real deep learning happens when they are captivated by their subject.”
Even after less than a decade in kindergarten classrooms, Vlasis sees the role of kindergarten teachers changing. Though kindergarten was once thought of a kind of gradual introduction to school, with a heavy emphasis on socializing and snacking, educators increasingly look to kindergarten to prepare students academically. Along with that expanded responsibility comes a growing appreciation for the role of the kindergarten teacher.
“There is more expected of kindergarten than ever,” he said. “And kindergarten teachers are more valued than ever.”
Still, Vlasis admits that he was not prepared for the scene that unfolded in his classroom a few weeks before the end of the school year, when the Golden Apple’s presenters surprised him with news of his award. Reading with a student named Oliver, Vlasis noticed that the boy’s attention was fixed on the door of the classroom. There, a parade of eight video cameras and 50 well-wishers, including Vlasis’s parents, were filing into the room for the impromptu award presentation.
“It was overwhelming,” Vlasis recalled. “My first thought was, ‘This can’t be happening.’ It was an awesome, awesome moment.”
The moment was no less awesome for the students of Hough Street School. They led Mr. George through the school’s hallways, chanting his name. And Vlasis’s kindergarten students even got to share in their teacher’s award. In the days leading up to the announcement, they had asked Vlasis repeatedly if he would get an apple if he won the award. But after he received his prize, it was Vlasis who made sure to make a special presentation to his students. Each received an apple.