St. Andrew teacher finalist for Golden Apple Award

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2023

St. Andrew teacher finalist for Golden Apple Award

Rachel Werderits, a Golden Apple Awards finalist and teacher at St. Andrew School in Chicago, in the classroom on March 28, 2023. (Karie Angell Luc/Chicago Catholic)
(Karie Angell Luc/Chicago Catholic)
(Karie Angell Luc/Chicago Catholic)
(Karie Angell Luc/Chicago Catholic)
(Karie Angell Luc/Chicago Catholic)
(Karie Angell Luc/Chicago Catholic)
(Karie Angell Luc/Chicago Catholic)
(Karie Angell Luc/Chicago Catholic)
(Karie Angell Luc/Chicago Catholic)
(Karie Angell Luc/Chicago Catholic)
(Karie Angell Luc/Chicago Catholic)

Rachel Werderits remembers how, early in her teaching career at St. Andrew School, the principal would sometimes come into her classroom while she was teaching to observe her.

Every time, she said, she would get nervous.

After a few years, she finally asked the principal, Allan Ackermann, who retired at the end of the last school year, why he did that.

“He told me he came to my room when he was having a bad day,” said Werderits, now one of 30 finalists for the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. “He said he knew he would always see something that would make him happy.”

“It was like a symphony,” Ackermann confirmed. “Everybody would be doing something different, something they were supposed to be doing, and she would be standing in the front conducting it all.”

If she is one of 10 winners named later this spring, Werderits will receive $5,000 and a spring sabbatical, and become a fellow of the Golden Apple Academy. The Golden Apple Foundation of Illinois this year is honoring fourth through eighth grade teachers; awards are given to teachers of different grade levels on a rotating basis.

“I am so proud of Rachel,” said St. Andrew principal Sarah Casavechia, who served as assistant principal when Werderits was hired. “It has been a pleasure to watch her grow from a first-year teacher in 2009 to the excellent teacher she is today.  I love watching her challenge herself and her students.  When Rachel takes on a task, she is determined to excel and exceed the standards.”

Werderits teaches sixth grade language arts, math, science and religion. She also mentors newer teachers and works with after-school programming, including starting and moderating the Bulldog Post, the school newspaper, which is staffed by students in third through eighth grade.

An avid runner, when the school doors were shut by the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, she mapped out all of her students’ homes and ran by, chalking messages of encouragement and math problems on their front sidewalks.

Current sixth graders say they like her because she finds ways to make learning fun.

“I was excited to get her,” said Eloise Hodgkins, while she sorted and counted different colors of Skittles for a math activity about mean, median and mode.

Eloise’s tablemate, Reid Alford, said that Wederits can be strict and has high expectations, but students meet them because they are engaged in what’s happening in class.

“She made the worst subject better,” said student Lucas Morales, after sorting his Skittles. The “worst subject” — language arts — is no longer the worst, he said, because of the games and activities Werderits uses.

Parents whose children are, or have been, in Werderits’ classes say they were surprised when their children came home talking about and interested in science.

“I remember there was a day when they were talking about gravity, and my son said she dropped to the floor and started doing pushups to demonstrate,” said Matt Gallagher, whose two children both had classes with Werderits. Gallagher was one of the parents interviewed by the Golden Apple Foundation about Werderits.

Nikki Loomos, a longtime teacher at St. Andrew whose younger child, Cate, is in Werderits’ class now, said her daughter saw a car held together with bungee cords on their drive home, and started talking about the potential energy those cords held.

“It was just this neat thing she learned about that she wanted to share,” Loomos said.

Kavita Hodgkins, Eloise’s mother, said the students all enjoy Werderits active and energetic style of teaching, but what she appreciates most is how Werderits has helped her daughter focus more on the importance and value of what she is learning than on the grades she is getting.

“It’s more about the material, and less about the number,” said Hodgkins, who also has three younger children at the school. “Before, she was kind of fixated on the grade.”

Loomos said that Werderits was an excellent teacher for both her children, who have different needs and learning styles.

“She challenges them, and they have to work,” Loomos said. “But she meets them where they are.”

And, Loomos said, for someone who teaches the first year of middle school, “she really has a handle on the drama.”

For her part, Werderits said she never planned to stay at St. Andrew so long. She had graduated from DePaul University and worked in the suburbs for a couple of years, and came to St. Andrew, 1710 W. Addison St., because she was looking for a teaching position closer to her North Side home.

“Once you work in a Catholic school and you can connect faith to what you’re doing every day — how we can be better people, how we can serve others — it’s something you want to keep doing,” she said. “I stay here every year, and I can’t imagine going anywhere else.”

Loomos said that she chaperoned a field trip with one of Werderits’ classes, and was struck by what she told the students before they got off the bus.

“She told them, ‘You know what the expectations are of St. Andrew students, and you all have ‘St. Andrew’ on your shirts. Behave in a way that will make St. Andrew proud, that will make your parents proud and will make you proud.’ It’s that last part — I’ve chaperoned a lot of field trips, and that’s the first time I heard someone tell the kids that they should make themselves proud.”

Werderits said that since she was announced as a finalist, she sometimes wonders if she’s good enough. If something goes wrong in the classroom, she wonders if she’s handling it like a Golden Apple honoree, and she feels more pressure to do well. It’s similar to what happened when she finished third at a large race in Bermuda, and suddenly had people expecting her to win more races.

But when she competed in her first Boston Marathon, she shared her training journey with her class, and they cheered her on from Chicago, making posters to decorate the school before she left.

Her students this year followed that class’ example. When a reporter for Block Club Chicago visited the class, all the students pulled out posters they had made to support her — without telling her.

“I was like, ‘Come on, they’ll think we staged this,’” she said.

Then, on the day representatives from the Golden Apple Foundation visited, they observed her classroom before meeting in a conference room with several students without Werderits’ present.

“When the students were going to take them to the conference room, they said, ‘Now can we pull out our posters?’” Werderits said.


  • catholic schools
  • golden apple award

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