UPTOWN — This school year has been third-grade teacher Lydia Diaz’s most challenging in her four years teaching in Uptown at Joseph Brennemann Elementary School.
The Uptown resident and Brennemann graduate said it’s the first school year in which her classroom has had kids within such a broad range of academic levels, from “very low to to very high and everything in between.” In the past, she said, more kids would be "somewhere in the middle."
It’s also her first year with kids in her classroom who have told her “I don’t want to do this,” in response to her instructions.
“But I don’t have that anymore in my class,” said Diaz, 26. “We’ve worked at it, we’ve talked about why it’s important to be respectful to others for your own good. I’m there, not to tell them what to do — but to help them.”
At Brennemann, 4251 N. Clarendon Ave., Diaz has a track record of bringing up student test scores, especially when it comes to language arts. And this year, she said her third-grade classroom has made impressive gains when it comes to behavior.
Brennemann, which has about 500 students, has had to absorb students from Graeme Stewart Elementary School, which the Chicago Board of Education voted to close last May.
Diaz acknowledged the closing of the students' school and their insertion into a new environment might have contributed to some behavioral issues early in the year.
“It was an adjustment at first. I think a lot of the kids were sad about their school closing and were very much attached to their old school,” Diaz said, commending the school community and transition team for helping accomplish “a smooth transition.”
“But there’s no more ‘this school against that school.' Now it’s more cohesive — we’re all Brennemannites," Diaz said.
Diaz was nominated as this week's Teacher of the Week by Brennemann Principal Sarah Abedelal, who told DNAinfo Chicago she believes Diaz “has mastered the art and heart of education.”
Abedelal praised Diaz for creating an environment "filled with rigor that challenges and pushes her students to the next level," and said "at the same time, she creates a safe place for her students to be wrong," so that that "they learn what's right and what they need to know to be successful fourth-graders."
“She has an unwavering commitment and dedication to the children of Brennemann School and their families,” Abedelal said.
Diaz lives about four blocks from the school, in the same house she grew up in when she was a Brennemann student.
When she was a kid she wanted to be a teacher, but changed her career path after someone close to her told her “You’ll never make money doing that. Be a lawyer.”
So she went to DePaul University to study political science with intentions of studying law.
During her sophomore year at DePaul, a school project brought her back to Brennemann.
She came to the school to observe how non-English-speaking students interact and communicate in a classroom environment.
“Being in the classroom, being with kids, I realized why I loved teaching so much when I was younger,” she said. “About a couple weeks later I changed my major to elementary education.”
Friday morning, she led her eager third-graders through various reading activities, including an in-class spelling bee and read-aloud exercise focused on commas, complimenting some students’ results while correcting and encouraging others.
Her classroom demeanor was stern, but calm and kind. She started more than a few sentences with, “Please remember the expectations,” while reining in outbursts or warning kids to be mindful of their behavior.
Student Sarah Tetebje, 8, said she likes Diaz “because she’s very nice, and she let’s us do activities.”
“She speaks in a very soothing voice, and she likes helping everybody,” Sarah added.
Another student, Rita Oppong, 8, said Diaz “is very funny,” and keeps a tight command of the classroom while also being kind to kids.
As much as aspiring teachers study teaching in college, focusing on educational theory and best practices, “I don’t think it sets you up for being in charge of 25 little bodies,” Diaz said.
“There's nothing like you being in charge and making every decision for yourself,” Diaz said. “It’s overwhelming in the beginning, but it just takes years of practice.”