Stunned doesn’t quite describe Monique Blakes’ reactions when a string of TV news cameras filed into her first-grade classroom.

“When I saw the radio and the news people, I’m like, ‘OK, did I fill out for a sweepstakes that I didn’t know about,’ and then when the mayor came in, oh my God,” said Blakes, a seven-year teacher at Oscar DePriest Elementary School.

It wasn’t a sweepstakes entry that brought the media and the mayor to her classroom Thursday morning May 10. Blakes has been named a 2012 Golden Apple Award winner. Blakes was among 10 recipients to get a surprise visit at their schools last week. The Golden Apple award recognizes teachers’ outstanding contributions in the classrooms. 

“It’s just overwhelming. I just can’t even express my heart,” Blakes said, fighting back tears as family members and her students hugged and congratulated her. A fellow teacher, who was a 2008 Golden Apple recipient, nominated Blakes for the honor. This makes three Golden Apple awardees for Oscar DePriest, 139 S. Parkside.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who joined in on the surprise, applauded both Blakes and the school’s principal, Minnie Watson, for creating a “trifecta formula” for setting high student expectations. The school, Emanuel said, has an accountable principal, great teachers and involved parents. For that, the school saw a 20 point jump in test scores within the last two years, he added.

“I just wanted to come and surprise you because I am so impressed with what you have done,” Emanuel said, adding that the students “scored a touchdown with a great teacher.”

Several of Blakes’ students, including Zakyah Parker, were happy to see her honored. “She is nice and she is sweet, and she deserves the award because I think she is the best teacher ever, the seven-year-old said.

Annette Gurley, Chicago Public Schools’ chief of elementary schools for Austin and North Lawndale, lauded Blakes’ teaching acumen, crediting her for bringing concepts learned at teacher conferences and implementing them in class. Blakes’ principal also gives the teacher high marks. Mainly for taking the time in getting to know the students and adjusting her instruction to meet each student’s needs.

“She pushes her children really hard,” Watson said. “She believes that they can learn and she gets them to believe that they can learn also.”

Blakes’ mom, Alma Moody, a single-parent who raised two daughters, couldn’t be more proud of her daughter. Moody said she was not surprised that her daughter went into teaching. Blakes’ grandmother was a pre-school teacher in the former Cabrini Green housing development, and her sister, who drove up from Florida for the occasion, was an eighth-grade teacher in suburban Harvey. Moody, who often volunteers at the school, sees the connection her daughter has with the students.

“The children just love her,” Moody said.

Teaching is Blakes’ second career choice. She worked for a time as a chemical engineer before realized that wasn’t her passion. She did a few stints teaching at a local YMCA and at several summer programs at Chicago Public Schools when she realized she was good with kids.

Blakes, a Lincoln Park resident, wanted to teach in an urban school environment; giving those disadvantaged students a similar educational opportunity afforded to her in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

“I could have picked a school over there by me, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to come back here and give these students an opportunity to go to the next level,” said Blakes, who holds a masters degrees, and received training at Academy of Urban School Leadership.

In accepting the award, Blakes said it is not about her accomplishments, but ensuring her students get the best education. “It is all for my students because I teach from my heart. They’re the future. If I don’t give it to them, who will?”

Photos by Daisy Winfrey