Colleen McKenna is a winner of the prestigious Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching

A few weeks before the end of the school year, Colleen (Harrah) McKenna MA ’13 logged on to what she thought was a virtual work meeting—only to find her colleagues and friends signing “Congratulations!” in sign language, and Golden Apple President Alan Mather announcing she’d won the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. Typically the Golden Apple Foundation surprises the winners in their classrooms, but due to schools being closed this spring, they had to come up with new ways to announce the 2020 award recipients. “I’m ecstatic—it still doesn’t feel real!” McKenna says.

McKenna is a third and fourth grade teacher of deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Chase Elementary School in Chicago, as well as a graduate of CUC’s Master of Arts in reading education program and current doctoral candidate in special education leadership. She was announced as one of 10 winners of the prestigious Golden Apple Award, selected from more than 730 nominees in Illinois. McKenna joins 21 other CUC alumni who have won the award in previous years.

According to Golden Apple, McKenna has been a dedicated advocate for her students in her 15 years of teaching, paying attention to each student’s individual needs, securing funding for projects that are of interest to them and volunteering after school to teach sign language to non-hearing-impaired students.

After earning her master’s at Concordia-Chicago, McKenna decided to return for her doctorate thanks to the supportive environment she found at the University. “I had teachers there that weren’t just teaching the content, they were true mentors,” she says. Her goal in pursuing her doctorate is to be able to contribute to research in deaf education. “I realized there is so little research out there pertaining to deaf education,” she says. “I wanted to figure out how it’s changing and be a better leader in the field and bring awareness to others.”

McKenna’s CUC professors know her award is well deserved, pointing to her effectiveness in lesson planning, instruction and engagement with her students, who learn to be a part of a community and take pride in their differences.

“Colleen’s enthusiasm, talent, and focus on prioritizing the importance of every role and voice in a learning environment is more than impressive,” says Dr. Andrea Dinaro, associate professor of special education at Concordia-Chicago. “Her planning and preparation involves collaboration and innovation as a foundation for teaching deaf learners. Thus, she creates an environment of respect and rapport that inspires her students to embrace innovation, social-emotional learning and service learning.”

Winners receive a $5,000 award and a spring sabbatical at Northwestern University. They also become Fellows of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, whose mission is to share their expertise and mentor aspiring teachers—a role that McKenna is taking seriously. “I feel like I have a bigger responsibility now to help inspire and mentor new teachers,” she says. “We’re finding in Illinois that the number of students identified with hearing loss is going up, while the number of teachers staying in deaf education is either plateauing or going down. … I’m hoping that with being a Fellow, I can use that platform to help recruit more teachers into the field.”

Colleen McKenna MA ’13, Reading Education Major