After all, the Elmwood Park High School special education teacher knew that hundreds of teachers are nominated each year for the prestigious honor.
But to make matters even more challenging, the competition this year would be open to teachers from throughout Illinois, not just from the Chicago area.
Well, coming as a surprise to exactly no one who has seen him teach, Mr. Heinen has been named one of 32 finalists in the 2019 competition.
Golden Apple, an Illinois nonprofit committed to recognizing and promoting excellence in education, publicly announced the finalists on Monday, Feb. 4, but Mr. Heinen found out several days earlier on Thursday, Jan. 31.
As he recalled: "I actually got a text from one of the people at Golden Apple saying, 'Check your email.' I thought the email might be, 'Thank you for your submission, but we regret to inform you…,' but it was the opposite. It was very exciting, very cool."
PHOTO: Now in his 12th year at EPHS, Mr. Heinen often uses multimedia presentations as part of his curriculum. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).
The finalists were selected from more than 550 nominees — meaning that only the top 6 percent were selected. Mr. Heinen had been nominated by EPHS Principal Mr. Douglas Wildes.
The award honors outstanding teachers for their roles in creating lasting, positive effects on their students' lives.
The competition focuses on different grade levels each year. For example, last year's contest was for pre-K through 3rd-grade teachers. This year the Golden Apple is for high school teachers.
Fellow educators, students, parents and community members nominate teachers for the awards. Teachers may not self-nominate. This year's nominees came from 71 of the state’s 102 counties.
Once nominated, candidates had to complete their own portion of the application process, which included submitting letters of reference and answering a number of questions about their approach to teaching.
So what does Mr. Heinen think made him stand out from the hundreds of other nominees?
"Honestly, I've been thinking about that myself, and I don't know," he said. "I would guess it was the letters of recommendation that people wrote for me. But yeah, I don't feel any different than anyone else. Honestly, I have no idea."
PHOTO: Mr. Heinen, who has a marine biology degree, discusses the role of DNA in the development of living things. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).
But Principal Wildes, the man who nominated Mr. Heinen, can tell you why the Mount Prospect native and John Hersey High School alum was at the top of his list.
"I decided to nominate Josh for this award because of his work ethic, selflessness and, most importantly, his love for his students," Principal Wildes said.
"There is no one in this building who works harder in the classroom for the students, who cares about the students' academic and social-emotional well being, and who is willing to do anything and everything for the success of the students and the school than Josh."
Mr. Heinen earned his bachelor's degree in marine biology from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. He then returned to the Chicago suburbs, where he began working at Glenbrook North High School as a special education assistant.
"I had thought about teaching marine biology at the college level, but working in a special education classroom changed my mindset a little bit," Mr. Heinen said. "I knew I wanted to work with that population. Things just kind of aligned from there."
PHOTO: Providing individualized help to his students is an important part of Mr. Heinen's approach to teaching. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).
One More Step to Go
After receiving his master's degree in special education from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, Mr. Heinen joined the EPHS faculty. Now a National Board Certified teacher, he is in his 12th year at the school.
Mr. Heinen teaches science to special education students, working with many of them throughout their four years at EPHS.
"It's great to see the evolution that high school students go through in the classroom," he said. "To see them senior year and compare them to freshman year — that’s a really rewarding experience."
As a Golden Apple finalist, Mr. Heinen will be recognized along with his fellow honorees on Saturday, Feb. 23, at the Golden Apple Celebration of Excellence, which will be held at the Tinley Park Convention Center.
But the selection process isn't over. One more step remains: evaluating the finalists. Eventually, 10 Golden Apple teaching winners will be selected.
The award recipients will be chosen by master educators who understand and recognize instructional best practices and who use professional standards to evaluate exemplary teachers.
PHOTO: Ten teachers are usually selected as Golden Apple Award winners each spring. If Mr. Heinen wins, he will be featured on a PBS television program along with the other award recipients. Click image for larger view (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca).
Up Close and In Person
Members of the selection committee will visit the finalists at their respective schools to watch them teach in person. During these visits, committee members will also interview the finalists' colleagues as well as school leaders, students, parents and community members.
The 2019 Golden Apple winners will be notified in the spring with surprise visits at their schools.
The selected award recipients will be featured on a Public Broadcasting Service one-hour TV program. The livestream of the show will air on Golden Apple’s Facebook page on May 18, and the edited PBS broadcast will air on multiple future dates.
Each Golden Apple Award winner will receive a tuition-free, spring quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern University. Each winner will also receive a $5,000 cash award and become a fellow of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators.
Regardless of the outcome, Mr. Heinen said he appreciates the honor he's already received as a finalist.
"It means a lot," he said. "I had not had recognition like this in my career. It's validation so to speak. It's also certainly a motivating factor if there's a rough day, just to know that it's out there. It lifts your spirits up and makes you feel good, which is all anyone can ask for."