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those who excel logoThe Illinois State Board of Education annually sponsors Those Who Excel to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to our state's public and nonpublic elementary and secondary schools. Excellence, Meritorious Service and Special Recognition ​awards are presented in seven categories: classroom teacher, school administrator/principal, student support personnel (licensed), educational service personnel (unlicensed), school board member/community volunteer; team, and early career educator. Nomination materials are evaluated by a selection committee comprised of individuals who represent a variety of educational organizations. Awards of Excellence winners in the classroom teacher category are finalists for the Illinois Teacher of the Year. Local school district leaders and members of school communities nominate candidates.​​​​​​​​​​​​​

2020 Teache​r of th​e Year Finalists

Tanya Katovich teaches chemistry at Hoffman Estates High School, located in Hoffman Estates, in Township High School District 211.

Jennifer C. Leban teaches creative technology for grades 6-8 at Sandburg Middle School, located in Elmhurst, in Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205.

Eric Combs is a band instructor for grades 6-8 at Richland County Middle School, located in Olney, in Richland County Middle School District.

Joe Ruffolo is a physics teacher at West Leyden High School, located in Northlake, in Leyden High School District 212.

Debra Nicholson teaches math at Rich Central High School, located in Matteson, in Rich Township District 22​7.

Tamara Kuper is a Math, Art, Career & Life Skills teacher for grades 6-8 at Aviston Elementary School, located in Aviston, in Aviston Elementary School District 21.

Margaret Moore teaches biology at Hononegah Community High School, located in Rockton, in Hononegah Community High School 207.

Helen Brandon teaches 6th grade Math and Science at Bloomington Junior High, located in Bloomington, in Bloomington Public Schools District 87.

Michael G. Murakami teaches 7th grade Math at Whiteside Middle School, located in Belleville, in Whiteside School District 115.

Daniel W. Hartman teaches 5th grade at DuBois Elementary School, located in Springfield, in Springfield Public School District 186.​


2020​ Outstanding Early Career Educator
Stacy Terlep is a High School Science Teacher​ at Antioch Community High School , located in  Antioch , in Community High School District 117.​


 2019 Illinois Teacher of the Year

Susan Converse is a former journalist turned special education teacher. Susan has worked in the field of education for the past 23 years. She began her teaching career in 1995 and has taught at the elementary, middle school and high school level. She has served students with emotional disabilities, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities and autism. Susan is certified as a reading specialist and holds a master’s degree in educational administration. She served as an administrator for nine years before returning to the classroom in 2013.

Susan currently works at Edwardsville High School teaching students with intellectual disabilities and autism and assisting them with their transition needs as they prepare to exit the school system.​ Susan opened a coffee shop at her high school in 2016, which serves as a self-supported vocational training center for her students. The Tiger Den Coffee Shop has served as a stepping stone to competitive employment for her students and several of her students are now employed in the community. The support and success of the coffee shop has also allowed her students to support individuals in need within the school district and community. Over the past two years, the Tiger Den Coffee Shop has donated more than $10,000 to local families in need and has supported community initiatives which promote inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Susan hopes to expand this vocational initiative by opening a similar establishment in the community in the near future.

 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year

Lindsey Jensen

Lindsey Jensen came into the teaching profession via an indirect route. She took a job as a teacher’s aide in a junior high behavioral disorder classroom. Part of the reason the students were not in a “regular” classroom was their inability to communicate and socialize appropriately with their classmates. Lindsey says that she heard a few expletives that she had never heard before. She realized by the end of the first day that although this job was certainly “no walk in the park,” she loved it.

This experience became the catalyst for her falling in love with the teaching environment. She decided to pursue a degree in speech communication. Lindsey graduated from college with high honors in 2005 and immediately enrolled in a master’s program and earned a Master of Arts in Teaching. She has worked in a variety of educational settings. She was hired 10 years ago as an 11th- and 12th-grade English teacher at Dwight Township High School in Dwight Public School District 230.

Lindsey is concerned not only about her students’ academic success; she lets her students know that she cares about their emotional and social well-being.  Students relate to her bubbly personality, her warmth, and her enthusiasm for teaching and learning. One her students said that “Mrs. Jensen constantly radiates positivity. Her happiness is infectious.” Lindsey never gives up on a student and she will do anything she can to help students with schoolwork and personal issues. She is a teacher, a confidante, a mentor, and a role model. Students and staff alike look up to her and value her opinions, her thoughts, and her teaching.

Lindsey’s boundless enthusiasm for learning -- she is currently finishing work on a doctorate degree -- is evident in the work she and a colleague have been doing to redesign the 9-12 English curriculum. Her colleague says that “… Lindsey is so motivated to collaborate in producing a rigorous, well-aligned, skill-based, scaffolded curriculum that fosters practical student learning. She thrives on collaboration and, despite her confidence, has no ego.”

She inspires colleagues and students alike. Lindsey uses a variety of strategies to meet the varying needs of her students and she makes learning fun. She is flexible in her lessons to ensure that students really get it rather than just moving on because she has to meet a deadline. Lindsey gets excited about whatever she is teaching and that excitement transfers to her students. She is committed to building relationships with her students. 

Lindsey builds relationships with her students and inspires all those around her by being involved with extracurricular activities like directing the Drama Club, coaching cheerleading, directing the spring musical, and coordinating the polar plunge team, to name a few. Lindsey is most proud of her ability to capitalize on her role as DTHS Student Council adviser to influence student involvement in Special Olympics.

Lindsey is almost done with her doctoral work, but she says she doesn’t intend to leave her classroom. She said she promised herself she would use what she learned while working on her doctorate to help her become a better teacher and she believes the experience has done just that. The school’s principal sums it up with these words, “In my 30 years as an educator, I have never met a teacher who has matched the levels of enthusiasm and professionalism that Lindsey brings with her every day.”​

 2017 Illinois Teacher of the Year

Ricardo "Ricky" Castro - 2016 Illinois Teacher of the Year

Ricardo (Ricky) Castro talks openly about his involvement with gangs as a young teen in Chicago. He freely admits he was a bad student on the verge of choosing an entirely different path in life. Ricky credits caring teachers who listened and encouraged him through those difficult years, with helping him make decisions that positively influenced him and the path he ultimately chose to take. Ricky’s parents were immigrants, and there wasn’t much money. His early experiences with school were tainted by negative stereotypes but, as he says, “having teachers that cared and challenged me, I learned how to commit to serious study and ask for assistance.” Those invaluable experiences were instrumental in his decision to become a teacher.

Ricky has now been a teacher for 10 years. He has been teaching English as a second language, English Arts, and Spanish for the past 3 years at Elk Grove High School in Township High School District 214. He puts a strong emphasis on helping his students develop what he calls biliteracy. His belief is that by helping students develop a proficiency in multiple languages, they are gaining skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. Under Ricky’s careful guidance, and his collaboration with colleagues, 80% of Elk Grove’s 9th grade Latino English Language Learners qualified to move into “mainstream” courses in just one year! He also teaches students about the importance of serving their community and its people.  

Recognizing that students of poverty often need more than academic success to achieve success in life, Castro created a tiered leadership program called Estudiantes Unidos. This innovative program challenges Elk Grove High School students to mentor their junior high and elementary school counterparts. The program teaches the value of citizenship, and encourages students to be leaders. Today the co-curricular endeavor impacts more than 200 students in the district.

Ricky works tirelessly to create academic and leadership experiences for his students that truly transcend the confines of the current definition of education. A parent shared this about Ricky: “One of the most positive things that Mr. Castro has given my daughter is an unquenchable desire to be the best person that she to be. Mr. Castro has been teaching her to be a person of integrity, commitment, humility, and love. I am so glad that he teaches my daughter.”

Meet Ricardo "Ricky" Castro - 2017 Teacher of the Year(Video courtesy of High School District 214)

 2017-18 Outstanding Early Career Educator

Betsy Alderman - 2017 Outstanding Early Career Educator

Teresa Brown teaches English language arts to eighth-graders at Manual Academy in Peoria Public Schools District 150. This is her second year at Manual and her fifth year of teaching overall. Teresa is highly motivated to help students grow, learn, and succeed. She understands what it is like to feel challenged outside and inside the school walls. Her own experiences have helped Teresa create a safe learning environment where she can guide her students to positive outcomes.

Her passion for teaching began when Teresa was a child. She needed to find creative ways to keep her two younger sisters occupied while their mom worked. She started by making household jobs fun. She made a game of cleaning the house, doing laundry, or preparing a meal. Once the chores were done, the girls played school. Teresa would teach the alphabet and counting to her 4-year-old sister, and reading and math to the 7-year-old. They played games during “recess” and twice a week Teresa would take her sisters on a “field trip” to a nearby park. She didn’t realize that she was already practicing how to plan and implement lessons, how to differentiate for each learner, and how to maintain order and structure in the classroom.

Students know that learning is the sole focus of Teresa’s classroom. She sets procedures for proper behavior and makes certain that students understand the expectations she sets forth. Teresa encourages students by praising and affirming their hard work, paying attention to detail, and following school policies. She has worked hard to create a positive culture where students gain confidence and knowledge.

A colleague says Teresa is “the epitome of what it means to be an educator.” Her classroom exudes a “can do” and “will do” spirit that students embrace. Students believe that they can succeed -- and they do succeed. Teresa has the ability to really connect with students. She is an expert at finding parallels between students’ lives and events going on around them. Teresa’s students find themselves learning in all types of ways that they didn’t even realize were lessons. One of her students described Teresa by saying, “She has changed the perspectives of many of her students about education by making learning interesting and fun. She has given us the tools we need to make our lives better.”

 Award Winners

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