Teacher of the Week: Natalie Lessaris

Teacher of the Week: Natalie Lessaris

Meet NATALIE LESSARIS, a fourth-grade teacher at Champaign's Booker T. Washington STEM Academy. A former stay-at-home mom, Lessaris brings the baking skills she has honed over the years to her classroom, where she rewards productive students with cookies.

Here's more:

The way I use cookies in class is ... every Monday, I give a productive student cookie award. I usually choose anywhere from two to four kids — but sometimes I'll do the whole class. I look at the week that has passed and I look to see who was productive. It might have been the student that did all their homework, all their class work, just that all-around responsible student.

But I also look for the student who maybe showed improvement. Maybe they did homework for the first time in two months. Even in that small 20 minutes of the day, I can shine the spotlight on them so they know I'm looking for ways to build them up and to give a shout-out to, as opposed to always looking for the things they're doing wrong. And it helps me, too: It gives me a more positive lens in the classroom.

The most challenging part of teaching is ... I never leave feeling really satisfied because there's only one of me and 24 of them. I never feel like I'm meeting anyone's needs all of the time. So it makes for a very rewarding career but also a very frustrating career in that you never feel like you've moved everyone along academically as much as you possibly could have. At the end of the day, you have to just let it go.

I can't live without my ... nail apron. I wear this around all day. I look dorky, but I have things at my fingertips that I need. I have my keys, pencils, my phone, nothing crazy.

As far as my favorite lesson plan ... going back to science, we do Earth's processes at the beginning of the year. We learn about Earth's sedimentary rock, which is the rock that has the layers — like the Grand Canyon. And we actually make sedimentary rock. We use white bread and brown sugar.

Then we do the Taylor Swift song "Shake It Off" — only it's "gets pressed down, gets pressed down, to make rock" because sedimentary rock is pressurized, and that's how it gets those layers in it. You get to go home and tell your parents you ate sedimentary rock today. They enjoy that. That's about as pop as I get.

Something unique about my school is ... I just have amazing parents who have really big dreams for their kids. I've almost always felt supported by my parents, and that makes a huge difference — to be partnered with parents instead of: I'm here, and they're over there. We really lock arms for the sake of their children.

When it comes to my summer plans ... I like to garden. I do like to cook and bake and have friends over for dinner. I walk my dog. I just enjoy being home. I'm kind of a homebody in that sense.

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