Meet Five Outstanding Teachers From Across the District
SCHOOLS | May 7, 2021
Meet Five Outstanding Teachers From Across the District

It’s the final day of Teacher Appreciation Week! While the five educators below represent different schools from different parts of the city, they all share a commitment to helping their students discover new passions and reach their full potential. If you haven’t already, make sure to celebrate your favorite educator today—you can even use our digital media toolkit to help spark some ideas. 

Thank you to Ms. Mostad, Ms. Tapp, Mr. Barrera, Ms. Ortiz, and Ms. Hanlon for your dedication, resilience, and all-around excellence in supporting our students!

Ms. Sarah Mostad is the drama teacher at Phillips High School, where she focuses on creating a culturally relevant curriculum by introducing her students to as many contemporary African American plays and playwrights as she can. One of the ways she does this is through partnerships with various theatre companies. Recently, actors from the Pegasus Theatre performed plays written by Phillips students. Ms. Mostad believes the best way to approach acting and playwriting in the classroom is through a series of small steps that build on each other. 

“At the beginning of the school year, we do a lot of contactless scenes or scenes that only have two sentences and last a minute,” she said. “These building blocks help me build stamina in my students so they see they are capable of writing a 10-page play. We work on it together, and there’s always student voice and involvement.”

Ms. Marie Tapp is a new addition to Salazar Bilingual Education Center. As the middle school social studies teacher, her teaching style revolves around relationship building with students and connecting historical events to her students’ lives. When the class learned about the trade partnership between Britain and China, she asked her students to identify its unhealthy qualities as if the two countries were two friends. While she’s back in the classroom, she still plans to incorporate some of the lessons she learned through starting her new role at Salazar during remote learning. 

“I learned the importance of understanding where my students are coming from so I can give them credit where I can for the effort they are putting into my class,” she said. “While there’s a lot of pressure to make your instruction exciting, I’ve found that keeping it simple works as long as I’m being authentic and creating a safe space.”

Mr. Milo Barrera is a pre-k teacher at Camras Elementary School. His families note that he has an amazing ability to capture and maintain his students’ attention, even during remote learning. He maximizes his strong relationships with his parents by consistently reminding them to keep college in mind as a long-term goal for their students because it is achievable for every single one of them. Inside the classroom, he encourages his students to be risk-takers through constant encouragement and support. 

“Our students need to be willing and fearless to fail, but too many of them don’t want to take those risks because there isn’t any positive reinforcement,” he said. “That’s why, in my classroom, we make sure the students know that we are always going to care about them and be proud of them so that they will work hard and feel comfortable learning.”

Ms. Monica Ortiz’s first role at Salazar Bilingual Education Center was as a Salazar parent. Now, she’s a diverse learner teacher for students in kindergarten through third grade. Some of her proudest moments as a teacher have been seeing students enter her classroom struggling to read and move on to fourth grade reading at grade level. During the pandemic, she continued to build rapport with her students by sending them postcards to let them know she missed them. Now that she’s back at Salazar, she feels motivated by the close-knit relationships between staff members at the school. 

“We’re like a family. I know that if I have an issue, I can tell the administration that I need help and they would understand because they’re both moms, just like me,” she said. “I’ve met some of my colleagues as my kids’ teachers first, which makes collaborating with them so easy.”

Ms. Leah Hanlon has been teaching eighth-grade language arts at Monroe Elementary for 15 years, despite moving to Chicago on a whim without the intention of staying very long. Something that she always looks forward to is teaching the younger siblings of her former students. Her approach to language arts is to help her students become independent readers by focusing on personalized learning and allowing them to explore texts they are interested in, including manga and graphic novels. As a first-year civics teacher, she’s also encouraging her students to make their voices heard. 

“Since my students are eighth-graders, they’re still a little nervous to speak up when something isn’t right because they don’t know exactly where they fit into the world yet,” she said. “My main message all year has been to use our voices because they’re the one power that everyone has.”

Looking to meet another awesome teacher? Click here to read about how Ms. Tolulope Solola is making a difference on Chicago’s West Side?