by Michelle Manchir
John Paulett leads almost all of his classes at Fenwick High School while the students sit in chairs formed in a circle. It's a way that provokes discussion and critical thinking for some of the tough topics he tackles in his theology classes at the Catholic school in Oak Park, he said.
His students stood up from those chairs Thursday morning to applaud Paulett as he became one of 10 Chicago-area high school teachers honored this year with a Golden Apple Award. Each year, the award puts a spotlight on the area's top teachers.
Paulett, 62,stood motionless when school administrators, representatives from the Golden Apple Foundation, his wife and adult daughter surprised him with the award during a moral theology class.
"My class knows I'm very rarely at any kind of loss for words, but I'm really overcome," he said, his voice breaking with emotion. "I'm so delighted."
Paulett was one of 510 teachers nominated from the Chicago area this year. The winners are chosen based on their contributions to "building a stronger, better–educated citizenry," according to the foundation's website.
Nominated by students, parents or colleagues and then vetted by foundation staff and volunteers, Golden Apple Award recipients receive a $3,000 cash award and a tuition-free, spring quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern University.
Paulett's nonlinear path to the classroom made him a memorable and deserving nominee, said Golden Apple Foundation President Dominic Belmonte. Paulett worked for 25 years in marketing and sales so he could pay for his daughter's college education before becoming certified as a teacher in Illinois, which was always his passion, Paulett said.
"He's an absolute model of the kind of energy and the kind of strength and the kind of character that we think represents the best of what the teaching profession has to offer," Belmonte said.
Fenwick High School Principal Peter Groom said Paulett's depth of knowledge of the material he teaches, versatility and extraordinary efforts to connect with students make him an asset to the school.
"He really makes an effort to engage himself in extracurricular activities. If one of his students plays baseball, he tries to make a point to get to a baseball game during the year," Groom said.
Students in Paulett's class described his teaching style as relaxed, but effective.
""This class is open and everybody's discussing," said 11th-grader Stasia Tomasek. "The best way to learn is for everybody to share their ideas, and Mr. Paulett definitely caters to that."
Paulett said his classes are 90 percent discussion by design.
"They have what's wonderful and good, my job is to draw that out," he said about his students.
This is Paulett's eighth year teaching at Fenwick, and while he knows many near his age may be considering retirement, he said he intends to stick around "as long as I'm able to keep going."
"The energy, the life, all comes from here," he said, nodding toward his classroom.
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