By Kelly White
Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School teacher, Heather McCarthy’s devotion to teaching has scored her quite the educational touchdown.
McCarthy, who teaches seventh-grade English Language Arts at the school located at 5345 W. 99th St. in Oak Lawn, was surprised when Chairman of the Chicago Bears, George McCaskey personally popped in to announce her as a Chicago Bears Classroom Champion last October.
“My principal, students, and coworkers all knew about the Chicago Bears Classroom Champion Award and kept it a secret from me,” McCarthy said. “When I logged onto my Google Meet to start teaching, I told the students my teacher controls were not working. I said, ‘I feel like we’ve been hacked. Nothing is working’. I could see them giggling and then my principal popped onto the Google Meet. After my coworkers also started joining, I knew I had definitely been hacked. My students call it ‘The Great Hack of 2020’.”
The Chicago Bears Classroom Champion Award is given to teachers who go above and beyond for their students. McCarthy was nominated for by her sister, Kim Rusch. The award is given to only eight teachers in the Chicagoland area.
When McCaskey read the nomination form, he said McCarthy was given the award based on how she addressed the social emotional needs of her students.
“This year has been all about connecting and creating a classroom community,” McCarthy said. “We start each class listening to a song from our class playlist and answering a ‘would you rather’ question. We have a lot of fun debating with each other. We have also done a virtual talent show, virtual spirit days, and Fun Friday choice boards that include self-care and working on our positive mindsets.”
McCarthy who has been teaching at Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School for the past 15 years, earned her bachelor’s degree in Education from Elmhurst College, her Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University, and her second Master’s degree in Specialization in Middle School from Walden University. She is currently attending Chicago State University for her Library Information Specialist endorsement.
In her virtual classroom at OLHMS, McCarthy has been focusing on helping students achieve their dreams.
“Our school motto is, ‘Create a Dream. Make it a Reality’,” McCarthy said. “Students followed this motto by choosing their Dream Career and figuring out a plan on how to make it a reality. During the pandemic, I feel it is really important for the students to think about the future in a positive way. The students researched colleges, universities, and trade schools that would help them further their education and ultimately help them land their dream job. The presentations also included inspirational quotes and music along with actionable steps to achieving their dreams.”
She often talks with students about reading identity. Together, they read picture books, read the first chapter of new novels that have come out, and discuss diverse books.
Every Friday, McCarthy makes book deliveries to any student requesting a book from her own personal collection. The book deliveries have now grown to where students are also requesting books for their little siblings or multiple copies of books so they can read with their parents. Students can also request school supplies or anything else they need.
“Since we can’t see each other in person, this is a nice way to connect,” McCarthy said. “The best is when a student knows I am coming, and they wave from the window or leave a note for me in their mailbox.”
Students are more than appreciative with McCarthy’s efforts, including Sofia Rangel, 12, of Oak Lawn.
“Mrs. McCarthy cares about your students in a way no teacher could ever,” Sofia said. “She has great taste in books. I normally don’t read a lot but since I have had you as a teacher, I have read so many books.”
Staff members at OLHMS also acknowledge McCarthy’s dedication to her students.
“Mrs. McCarthy always takes the initiative to inspire and positively impact our scholars,” Principal Dr. Sean McNichols said. “The opportunity for Mrs. McCarthy to be selected as a Chicago Bears Classroom Champion just opened another door of creativity for a passionate practitioner and advocate of literacy. She used this as a special opportunity to enhance our scholars’ experience here at our middle school.”
As a recipient of the Chicago Bears Championship Award, McCarthy received a huge swag bag of Bears gear including a football autographed by Cody Whitehair, a face mask, coffee mug, lanyard, and pens. She was also given a personalized jersey with her last name on the back and a $1,000 check to use for her classroom.
McCarthy used the funds to have her students purchase what she is calling, Dream Books. The Dream Books stemmed simply from McCarthy’s love and encouragement of reading. With all the background information students have learned about different genres and types of books, they were easily able to choose their Dream Book based on aspiring career choices. These books are to also be used for their enjoyment and independent reading.
“The student who wants to own her own bakery chose a recipe book and the student who wants to be a cartographer chose a book of maps,” McCarthy said. “We had books about being doctors, lawyers, architects, veterinarians, and being a part of the military.”
On Wednesday, February 10, the Chicago Bears sent Staley Bear, their mascot, to OLHMS to help hand out the books. Students, with the help of their parents and/or caretakers were able to drive up and receive their Dream Book directly from Stanley himself.
In every Dream Book, McCarthy wrote a personalized note to each student.
“I thanked them for their resilience and perseverance in this difficult time,” McCarthy said. “I wanted to let them know how grateful I am for all their hard work and how much I appreciate them showing up to class every day and investing in their education.”