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Bronzeville music teacher wins coveted Golden Apple award

Reggie Spears was also a Golden Apple Scholar while attending Illinois State University.

Teacher Reggie Spears (green shirt) surrounded by some of his students at Bronzeville Classical Elementary School after being surprised with his Golden Apple award on Thursday, May 13, 2021.
Teacher Reggie Spears (in center in green shirt) is surrounded by students at Bronzeville Classical Elementary School after he was surprised with a Golden Apple award on Thursday.
Grace Asiegbu/Sun-Times

A music teacher at Bronzeville Classical Elementary School got the surprise of a lifetime Thursday morning when he thought he was walking into a union meeting but instead received a Golden Apple Award for excellence in teaching.

Reggie Spears has been teaching music for over a decade — the last three years at Bronzeville Classical Elementary School — but said he didn’t ever expect to win this award.

“I was just doing what I thought was best. It never even crossed my mind that this would be a possibility for me,” Spears said.

Annually, the Chicago-based Golden Apple Foundation honors educators from across the state for the positive and lasting effects they have on their students’ lives, and the impact they have on building stronger communities.

Spears is one of 10 teachers who received the award this year, which saw a record-breaking number — 700 — of nominations of pre-K through third grade teachers.

Golden Apple recipients each receive $5,000 and a spring sabbatical provided by Northwestern University.

Reggie Spears is one of 10 teachers receiving an Golden Apple award in teaching excellence this year out of 700 nominations of pre-K through third grade teachers. Photo taken at Bronzeville Classical Elementary School on Thursday, May 13, 2021.
Reggie Spears is one of 10 teachers receiving an Golden Apple award in teaching excellence this year out of 700 nominations of pre-K through third grade teachers.
Grace Asiegbu/Sun-Times

This award is something Spears knows all too well. He was part of the Golden Apple Scholars — a teacher preparation and tuition assistance program — while he was an undergraduate student at Illinois State University nearly 15 years ago. But winning it wasn’t something he ever expected.

“When I got nominated several months ago, I was shocked. I still don’t know who nominated me for the award,” Spears said, still breathless from the surprise celebration. “I couldn’t believe that I was one of 32 finalists, and now here I am, a winner. I am still in shock.”

He may have been shocked, but school principal Nicole Spicer was not.

“Mr. Spears is an absolutely amazing teacher,” she said.

“When we knew we were opening remotely, he applied for a grant that gave music boxes for all the kids,” Spicer said. Spears secured the funding for a set of 30 boxes with the instruments — guitars, recorders, triangles and even drums — which allowed students to practice at home.

“The kids love him because from the time they are in kindergarten, he cultivates this love for music,” she said.

Golden Apple Foundation president Alan Mather called Spears an “amazing” teacher with a culturally responsive and engaging approach to teaching.

“His efforts to bring the community into the school [and vice versa] and his ability to say, ‘Students need to see their own experiences reflected in the music they do or performances they’re a part of,’ is key to help lift students up,” Mather said.

Spears said in his music class, students learn about more than just music.

“Music is so important because it encompasses all subjects,” he said. Students learn science when they discuss how instruments produce sound waves, and learn history when he teaches genre development and different styles of music.

“Bronzeville has a really rich musical history with the development of gospel music and its role in the development of jazz in Chicago,” he said. “We are very fortunate that we are a school that has students from all across the city coming here to learn, and giving them the understanding of the community that they are a part of is very important.”