Diana (Neimanis) O’Connor ’86 knows what an important role music can have in the life of high schoolers, because that’s what it did for her.

The Libertyville native wasn’t an athlete in high school and didn’t do theater, but she always loved music. It was O’Connor’s high school music program where she found friends who became family, where she learned from teachers who inspired her to become a music educator herself.

Now, O’Connor is a finalist for a 2013 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching for her work at Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa. O’Connor and the other 31 finalists were selected from a pool of 510 nominations and 215 applicants from high schools throughout the Chicagoland area.

That recognition, O’Connor says, has been surreal.

“I view myself as someone who just comes in and does her job,” O’Connor said. “I can’t believe I’m being recognized for something I’m passionate about and truly love doing every day of my life.”

The Illinois State alumna later got her master’s degree from DePaul University in Chicago. She’s taught advanced placement music theory, fine arts appreciation, and beginning piano.

But O’Connor’s primary responsibility is teaching her five choirs at Lakes. She’s always been drawn to the high school setting, she says, because she connects well with adolescent learners and likes getting more than one year to work with her students. Yet the biggest reason is a personal one.

High school is a unique time in a young person’s life, when everyone feels insecure and awkward at times. It was O’Connor’s teachers who inspired her then—and now.

“So much of our work right now (in education) is focused on tests, on assessments. But to be able to create music and something artistic, there’s just nothing else like it,” O’Connor said.

The Glee effect

One thing she and her choir colleagues have to combat is the Glee effect—that is, the misconceptions stoked by TV shows like Glee that high school singing is primarily a solo act book-ended with big drama. Ahead of a recent holiday concert, for example, her girls’ choir was shocked by how much backup singing would be needed for a rendition of the pop staple, “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”

O’Connor tries to mix in a little popular music as a reward for good work with the classics, ending the year with a pop-heavy concert.

“They realize that it’s like candy. You can’t eat it all the time,” O’Connor said.

The veteran teacher loves keeping in contact with her singers after they leave; half her friends on Facebook are former students. Some have gone on to singing careers, but she stresses that inspiring any kind of lifelong performance—church choirs, civic events, whatever—is her real goal.

O’Connor also talks up Illinois State to her students all the time. She’s thankful for the great professors she encountered in Normal, and for the well-rounded teacher education she received.

“We come from good stock,” she said.

The 32 Golden Apple finalists will participate in a final round of review prior to the announcement of the 10 recipients in May. Each Golden Apple Award recipient gets a tuition-free, spring quarter sabbatical to study at Northwestern University. Each recipient also receives a $3,000 cash award. Award recipients become fellows of the Golden Apple Academy of Educators.

O’Connor will be observed in her classroom later this week.

“I’m telling my students I feel like it’s the audition of a lifetime,” she said.

Meanwhile, Illinois State alumnus Michael Lantz ’94 was the recipient of a Golden Apple award this year from the Golden Apple Foundation, a separate organization based in Rockford. Lantz teaches economics, government, and world geography at Guilford High School in Rockford.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.