Illinois Education Association honors educators from around the state

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Education Association (IEA) awarded seven educators from around the state for their outstanding commitment to their schools, students, communities and public education.

The awards were presented during the IEA Representative Assembly (RA). The RA is the legislative body of the IEA and helps the state’s largest union set its agenda for the year. There are 1,200 IEA delegates, guests and state dignitaries who attend the RA.

The IEA award recipients were nominated and chosen for their awards by their peers.

The 2024 IEA RA award winners are:

Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award – Jennifer Jaros (Multilingual teacher, Oliver Wendell Holmes School, Oak Park Elementary School District 97) and Angelica Degante (Multilingual teacher, Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, Oak Park Elementary School District 97) 

In the beginning of November 2023, the Village of Oak Park established emergency protocols to provide housing for asylum seekers from Venezuela. Oak Park School District 97 immediately joined forces with the village to begin plans for providing security, stability and school to migrant children. During these transitions, multilingual (ML) teachers, Jenn Jaros and Angelica Degante, have been incredible leaders in making sure newcomer families and students feel welcome. They have organized drives to collect school supplies, hygienic supplies and toys to make sure families have essential resources. They have collaborated with colleagues on creating accessible community events for multilingual families including Family Art Day, Family Resource Night and welcome assemblies. Seeing a need for a designated resource hub, Jenn collaborated with parents to establish a Multilingual Family Advisory Council. These two educators have engaged their colleagues and the community to provide critical support to asylum-seeking families and all multilingual families, expanding support beyond their individual classrooms. They do all of this while continuing their full-time jobs as teachers at school and mothers at home. They are true representations of the meaning behind the Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award as they have made a profound impact on our school, our students, their families and the community of Oak Park.  

Bob Haisman Student of the Year Award – Madi Houser (Aspiring educator, Eastern Illinois University) 

Madi Houser is a senior at Eastern Illinois University studying elementary education and chairperson for IEA Aspiring Educators. Under Madi’s leadership, the EIU Aspiring Ed program has grown. One of her best qualities as a leader is the way she lifts up others. She created the APEX program, which highlights the good work future educators are doing on college campuses; the program has fostered growth in teacher prep courses. As Chairperson, Madi has organized retreats for aspiring educators in Illinois to discuss the future of education and the value of IEA membership. During these trainings she has introduced aspiring educators to the Red for Ed movement and the importance of taking political action. She does all of this while navigating the challenging side effects of a health condition and treatment. Madi spreads joy in everything she does. She is always one of the first to volunteer to help and does everything with a smile. An activist through and through, she has been a vocal proponent of HB 4562 for paid student teaching and has made invaluable contributions to our union and our communities in so many ways. Her future students are so lucky to call “Miss Houser” their teacher.

Bob Haisman Teacher of the Year Award – Dakota Tostado (Teacher, Collinsville High School, Collinsville Community Unit School District 10) 

With a deep passion for both politics and education, it’s only natural that Dakota Tostado became a social studies teacher. At his alma mater, Collinsville High School, Dakota empowers his students to use their voices and be actively engaged in the world around them. For Dakota, it is important that his students understand the relevance of history. It is also important that he throws in a Spongebob reference in his lesson at least once a week (his students know him as the Spongebob teacher). Outside of the classroom, Dakota brings his enthusiasm for politics to IEA’s Grassroots Political Activist program as a GPA designate. He has sat down with lawmakers and served on panels to find solutions to the educator shortage and better support educators entering the profession, especially educators of color. As an Early Career representative, Dakota works hard to make sure educators who are new to the profession feel valued and supported. He encourages Early Career educators to be active in school board elections, to get involved in contract negotiations and to make sure their voice is heard. Too often, early career educators are made to believe that asking for help in their profession is a sign of weakness. Dakota says, “We need to change the stigma!” Dakota believes he would not be where he is today without the teachers who guided him. As an educator and a union member, Dakota helps educators find their power and students achieve their dreams. 

Education Support Professional of the Year – Amy Evans (Reading aide, Lincoln Elementary School, Community Unit School District 66)

Amy Evans is a reading aide, serving CUSD66. As co-president of the Canton Education Association, a wall-to-wall local, she has the knowledge and leadership skills to advocate for any position. She introduced “Know Me, Know My Name” to her building, a program to help identify and support at-risk students. That program is now part of the school improvement plan. Amy is active in her community through Canton Elks, the Salvation Army and her local food pantry. She maintains relationships with local legislators to advocate for all staff and members of the community. She has a Free Little Library in her yard to expand book access to students who live nearby and during the pandemic, she held “classes” outside her house for the neighborhood. Amy is the definition of an ambassador for public education. Amy is persistent. Just because she has been told no, doesn’t mean she will stop advocating for others. Through various IEA and district grants, Amy started a snack pantry in her school, provided enrichment services for students and launched a community service project for a local crisis center. She understands the importance of building strong and positive relationships with students, families and all stakeholders of the school community.

Dr. Cheryl L. Thayer Higher Education Advocate Award – Pam Lessner (Part-time librarian, Richard J. Daley College. City Colleges of Chicago)

Pam’s union involvement with the IEA began after seeing the musical Hamilton for her daughter’s birthday. It was after the performance that Pam decided if she was going to get the contract she and her colleagues deserved, she needed to be in the “room where it happens.” And Pam’s made sure she’s been in that room ever since. A part-time librarian at Richard J. Daley College, Pam has been an active member of City Colleges Contingent Labor Organizing Committee (CCCLOC) for the past nine years. She also serves as membership chair and Region 67 Grassroots Political Activist (GPA). Pam knows that state politics and union work are not about a quick fix, but rather lasting systemic change. She makes sure her members are engaged at all levels, opening up doors to IPACE (Illinois Political Action Committee for Education) hearings, providing insight into state legislation and getting members involved in aldermanic elections. When a challenge arises, Pam rolls up her sleeves and says, “What do we need to do?” When it comes to her students, whether they are straight out of high school, or returning to higher education after 20 years away, Pam provides the encouragement they need to take ownership of their education. Her union leadership stems from a deep civic responsibility and she inspires others to join the fight for the common good.  

Mary Lou and Keith Hauge Retiree of the Year Award – Sara Kaufman (Retired educator, Eureka Community Unit School District 140)

Sara taught kindergarten for most of her 30 years at Eureka Davenport Grade School. After she retired, she subbed at Eureka High School so she could watch her last group of kindergarteners graduate. Her former students were always excited to see her as a sub, and she would grade their papers with smelly markers and have everyone sing the “Tooty Ta” song she had taught them years ago—even the 6 foot, 4 inch basketball players would sing with pride! Sara is president of her IEA-Retired chapter, Heart of Illinois, and she works hard to keep members engaged and informed on local politics. This stems from her days as a Grass Roots Political Activist, and she maintains relationships with lawmakers to this day to continue advocating for public education. As a member of IEA-Retired, Sara has served as a mentor for IEA Aspiring Educators for 17 years at Bradley University and Illinois State University. She is such a strong advocate for the program that she launched a brand-new chapter at Eureka College last spring. From her many years educating our youngest learners, to countless hours lobbying for public education, to her continuous mentoring of aspiring educators, Sara has made a tremendous impact in our communities and could not be more deserving of this award.  


At 135,000 members strong, the Illinois Education Association (IEA) is the largest union in Illinois. The IEA represents PreK-12 teachers outside the city of Chicago and education support staff, higher education faculty and support staff, retired education employees and students preparing to become teachers, statewide.

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