It is a little crazy to Kara Lentine that she was recognized by the Illinois State Board of Education in only her second year of teaching.
The third-grade teacher at Johnsburg Elementary School graduated from Elgin’s Judson University in 2021 and started teaching in her classroom of 19 students during the 2021-22 school year.
“Right from the very beginning, when I saw her with students and what I saw her doing in her classroom, ... I was really pretty stunned,” Principal Bridget Belcastro said. “I thought I was looking at a fairly experienced teacher, and I knew she was in her first year.”
Belcastro nominated Lentine for the state board’s Those Who Excel and Teacher of the Year awards because of how she interacts with her students.
“She has what is referred to as a teacher intuition,” Belcastro said. “She knows how to make connections with kids, and her knowledge of content ... is so strong.”
Lentine said she works toward ensuring that the students are leading the way in their own education while in her classroom.
“One of my professors said it is important to make it student-led. They take more accountability in their learning that way,” Lentine said.
Her classes are doing “total body learning,” Lentine said. That includes visuals, hands-on manipulation to create brain links and even movements to learn different vocabulary words.
I think a lot of teacher can say they build a rapport, but I truly spend time outside of school to get to know the kids, their interests and their hobbies. It creates a culture of respect in the classroom and goes hand in hand with classroom management.— Teacher Kara Lentine
”They are up and moving and engaged in learning. It is something that I aim for and am a huge advocate for,” she said.
Lentine brings her students into what she calls a “community circle.” They’ll sing a song, she’ll ask them a question, or she’ll take a sock and put three different things in it and ask students to share thoughts.
That’s all part of building a “culture of respect,” Lentine said, “the social-emotional interaction they were missing (during the pandemic).”
She was a junior in college when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and schools switched to online learning. In the fall of her senior year, Lentine’s student-teaching was all done remotely.
Her students started school remotely, too.
“Because they started in kindergarten remotely, they missed the social-emotional pieces” that come with going to school, Lentine said. “The kids really missed interacting with each other, ... some type of normalcy.”
Part of helping students transition to in-person learning and building a sense of community includes Lentine getting to know her pupils’ likes and interests, too.
“I think a lot of teacher can say they build a rapport, but I truly spend time outside of school to get to know the kids, their interests and their hobbies,” she said. “It creates a culture of respect in the classroom and goes hand in hand with classroom management.”
She also builds a rapport by having the students lead parent-teacher conferences through recordings she makes in the classroom.
“The kids are not there with me, but I record their voices,” Lentine said.
The students tell their parents in their own words “how they have grown as readers, in math and science, as explorers.”
“[Parents] really enjoy hearing their own children’s words, and they are part of the conversation,” she said.
Although some students struggle more than others in narrowing the achievement gap, her students have shown great progress in their standardized tests, Belcastro said.
“She is successful at not just building relationships, but her students’ achievement is also very strong,” Belcastro said.
Lentine is “not a showy person,” and she gives credit to her team at Johnsburg Elementary and would “never toot her own horn or put herself out there” as an expert, Belcastro said.
And although Belcastro said she’s never seen another teacher who connects like Lentine does, she doesn’t take credit for that either.
“I am sure teachers have done it before,” Lentine said. “I can’t claim it is something I came up with.”