Everyday Hero Erika Wozniak

Winner, AFT Teacher division

Teacher, Oriole Park School, Chicago
Chicago Teachers Union

Passionate. Brave. Articulate. The adjectives can pile up quickly when people bring up Erika Wozniak. But press Wozniak about her style of speaking up and out—for kids, colleagues and public schools—and the fifth-grade science teacher concocts an entirely new formula: "strategic troublemaker."

Erika WozniakFor the past 12 years, Wozniak has taught in Chicago Public Schools, finding ways to take public discussion of the urban education challenge to the granular level of the classroom. Her commentaries have been published in the Chicago Tribune. She's been in campaign ads for local candidates running on a strong school platform, and she even hosts a monthly stage show called "Girl Talk with Erika Wozniak."

Although she could probably write her own ticket on any path she chooses in life, Wozniak says there was never any doubt what that path would be: She loves helping her students discover through science the richness of inquiry, of being unafraid to try and fail, understanding there is value in that process. With science, "you have to explore and fail—and learn from that failure," explains Wozniak, a CPS mentor teacher and a member of the Educator and Licensure Board for the state Board of Education.

She also spearheaded a successful campaign to stop taxpayer money needed for public schools from bankrolling a new basketball arena for DePaul University, her alma mater. She's worked as a local union representative for most of her career, serving so aggressively in one building that it cost her a chance to return for the next year. But that aggressive union stand also has its rewards—it's why her school is moving to honor the contract's class-size limits. When she walked in a classroom and saw only 26 kids, rather than the 36 she had worked with in prior years, the sight was so overwhelming, she had to sneak into the restroom to wipe away a few tears. "She is absolutely unafraid to stand up for the rights of her students and for the future of public education," one colleague says