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Alumna and Newest Golden Apple Teacher 'Always About the Students'

by Debra Pressey, News-Gazette Media / May 13, 2021

Alumna and Golden Apple Awardee Dominique McCotter

Photos by Robin Scholz / The News-Gazette

There are two questions Champaign kindergarten teacher Dominique (Collins) McCotter, Ed.M. '14 C&I, says she asks herself at the end of every day.

What did she learn that day? What did her students learn?

“I really love kids so much,” she said. “I love learning so much.”

The 35-year-old McCotter was honored Tuesday at her school, Dr. Howard Elementary, with a Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.

The staff at Dr. Howard pulled off a surprise award presentation for her in the school cafeteria complete with her students holding banners and waving pom poms.

McCotter walked in, looked around the room and saw her students and her family there and wiped away tears.

“This is such a huge honor,” she said.

Each year, Illinois-based Golden Apple selects and honors teachers for the roles they play in having lasting effects on their students’ lives and in building stronger communities, the organization said.

McCotter is one of 10 teachers to receive an award this year out of what Golden Apple said was a record-setting 708 nominations of pre-kindergarten through third-grade teachers.

McCotter grew up in the south Chicago suburb Matteson and went to Illinois State University, where she got a bachelor's degree in education. She holds a master’s degree from the College of Education at the University of Illinois

She got into teaching because she loves kids and learning so much, she recalled, “even when I was a kid, I played school.”

McCotter’s husband, Ryan McCotter—at the award ceremony with their 4-year-old son, Collin—said his wife is a hard worker, loving, caring and passionate about helping kids learn.

“She loves seeing the growth her students make quarter to quarter, year to year,” he said. “That’s what keeps her going.”

Dominique (Collins) McCotter pc Robin ScholzDominique McCotter spends her mornings in her kindergarten classroom and afternoons as an instructional coach to other teachers and working with kids who need extra help in such subjects as reading and math, Dr. Howard Principal Suzanne Meislahn said.

She’s respected by her colleagues, humble and, Meislahn said, “always about the students.”

Not only that — McCotter builds relationships with her students and their families, Meislahn said, and she’s an excellent role model as a person of color for students who need role models who look like them.

McCotter is a teacher who looks not only at the academic data but where students have been, what their circumstances are beyond the classroom and what their families need from her to educate their children, said Wendy Starwalt, principal of Rantoul’s Pleasant Acres Elementary School and McCotter’s nominator.

Also a former principal at Dr. Howard, Starwalt said McCotter taught her so much she always referred to her as “my millennial mentor.”

“I have never in my whole 30 years in education have anybody impact my practice more than Dominique,” she said.

McCotter has mentored many young teachers, and she “gets” both kids and adults, Starwalt said.

“Dominique is not your typical teacher,” she wrote in her nomination. “Her ability to navigate curriculum, climate, culture and relationships is like no other. This would include students, colleagues and families. Her approach to teaching and learning really needs to be replicated across classrooms all over this country.”

In announcing McCotter as an award winner, Golden Apple said she makes many in-the-moment teaching decisions based on feedback from her students.

Also trained as a Reading Recovery teacher and Teacher Leader, McCotter has a classroom library featuring a diverse array of characters in terms of culture, gender, background and life circumstances, “and she encourages her students to engage in conversations about those stories,” the organization said.

McCotter, who has been with the Champaign school district for 12 years, has also taught first and fourth grades. On other assignments with the district for the past seven years, this has been her first year back in the classroom, she said.

McCotter and fellow Golden Apple award recipients each receive a $5,000 cash award and a spring sabbatical provided by Northwestern University at no cost. The winners further become fellows of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators who help prepare the next generation of teachers.

“These outstanding teachers transform the lives of students, schools and communities over the course of their careers,” said Golden Apple President Alan Mather. “Their resilience and perseverance in this past year — and their career — has been nothing short of amazing.”