Tara Santiago Teacher of the Week

Middle school math teacher Tara Santiago stands in front of the blueprints for the home-design project she does with her students every year at Countryside School in Champaign.

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Nominate a teacher by emailing Anthony Zilis at azilis@news-gazette.com

When Tara Santiago was in middle and high school in Puerto Rico, she loved studying Spanish literature. Over the years, her interests shifted, but she never lost that love for learning.

After earning a degree in computational mathematics from the University of Puerto Rico, Santiago moved to Champaign-Urbana to earn her master’s degree in applied mathematics. During that time, she developed a love for teaching, first as a tutor, then as a math teaching assistant.

Now she’s in her sixth year at Countryside School where, as one student describes it, she has a penchant for breaking down concepts that seem complicated at first glance, and she has the patience to work with students until they understand.

I find my work important because ... middle school is such a pivotal moment for students. The experiences they have in my classroom can shape how they feel about math for the rest of their lives. I’m very aware of that, and so I strive to create a comfortable and welcoming environment in which mistakes are okay and perfection is not the end goal. When students don’t feel pressured, they enjoy learning and they achieve more.

I became a teacher because ... it came naturally to me. I wanted to help people and do meaningful work. As a middle school teacher, I get to do that every day and have fun at the same time.

My favorite/most unique lesson that I teach is ... the home-design project my sixth-graders do every year. Students design and create an accurate floor plan of a home based on the needs of its future residents. They make a draft, receive feedback from a professional architect and make changes accordingly. The experience can be very eye-opening for them since it is often the first time they have thought about the practical aspects of a home. I love this project. It ties together many of the topics that I teach throughout the year. It also shows a way in which math is used in the real world and provides an opportunity for students to be creative.

My most fulfilling moment on the job was ... it’s hard to pin down just one moment because so many days in this job are fulfilling. What stands out the most for me is the sense of togetherness in everyday moments — the whole middle school sitting around a campfire singing, students from different grades becoming friends, teachers working together to plan and set up activities. I feel very lucky to work in a place where people foster and maintain such a caring and tight-knit community.

Something else I’m passionate about is ... cooking! I love trying new recipes and improving my cooking skills. Over the years, I’ve gone from making food that’s just edible to making food that I truly look forward to eating and sharing with my family.

My favorite teacher and subject to study in school was ... I went to middle and high school in Puerto Rico. My favorite subject shifted over the years, but was usually language arts. Throughout the years, we read and analyzed a lot of Spanish and Puerto Rican literature. I have always been an avid reader, so I really enjoyed that. My favorite teacher, however, was my 11th-grade chemistry teacher, Mrs. Aponte. She was very kind and she made chemistry exciting through activities and experiments.

I engage students during this strange time by ... having conversations with them, listening to their stories, and asking them what they think. More than anything else, I’ve found that students want to feel connected to others, especially during this time.

If I weren’t a teacher, I would be ... an engineer. I really enjoy thinking about how things work and how to solve problems.

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