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LSS Teacher Receives Outstanding Educator Award From The University of Chicago

IMG-20210607-WA0000Although the two have never met in person, the powerful connection between a teacher and student were enough to cause the University of Chicago to recognize Elizabeth Contreras, a social studies teacher at Laurel Springs School, with the Outstanding Educator Award.

“Mrs. C. came at an unexpected time in the last year of my schooling,” said Nicole Geller, a ’20 LSS alumna from Latvia who nominated Contreras for the award. “Teachers always reach out first, but I never felt a connection as with Mrs. C.”

It was that connection that pushed Geller, who has played professional tennis since age 9, to excel academically, even amid a busy athletic schedule.

It was that connection that caused Geller to go beyond her studies, composing 30 letters to the editor — at Contreras’ encouragement after an Honors Philosophy class — that were sent to publications in the United States, Australia and Europe.

It was that connection that made Geller feel that everything would be OK during the pandemic, even as the nation battled with the social and health implications of COVID-19.

“She deserved the award so much,” said Geller, who will attend the University of Chicago this fall. “I wish I could meet her in person to congratulate her.”

Each year, the University of Chicago honors educators who “go beyond every-day teaching and leave an impression that is carried over a lifetime.” Newly admitted students may nominate an outstanding teacher who “thinks carefully about their instruction, shares an infectious love for learning, and cares for their students both inside and outside the classroom.”

For Geller, the award was a perfect fit.

Contreras, now known to her students as Dr. C since earning her PhD in Education, has taught at Laurel Springs School since 2016. Her career in education goes back to 2004.

The Future of Education

Contreras is passionate about education, and particularly about LSS.

“The future of education is virtual,” Contreras said. “The LSS model is one of the strongest.” Among the strengths is the asynchronous teaching model, which Contreras described as allowing her to focus on her students’ individual progression. This progression often comes through detailed feedback and challenging questions.

“I like to challenge my students in my feedback to think of different angles and perspectives,” Contreras said. “LSS has helped me develop such a practice.”

This emphasis on feedback was clear to Geller, who enrolled in LSS in 10th grade. She had previously attended International Baccalaureate schools since age 2.

“She did her job 100% and enjoyed it,” Geller said. “She pushed me academically. I wouldn’t have found interests to explore without her. She really gave detailed feedback and notes.”

That feedback and notes made a difference for Geller, who said students struggle to figure out grades without notations. Contreras’ role as a teacher left no wondering for students such as Geller.

“I take time to get to know my students,” Contreras said. “I am genuinely interested in their lives and especially how they feel about things. I try also to help them understand the content and I try to empower my students.”

Among Contreras’ teaching techniques is a student-led iClass, where students share their perspectives on topics. Contreras says these hosted student-led classes usually have the largest attendance and student participation.

Not only does Contreras recommend that teachers reach out to their students early and often, but for parents and students themselves to do the same.

“The more contact there is between students, parents, and teachers, the more consistent and meaningful the learning experience will be,” she said.

Balancing Education and Personal Goals

As COVID-19 shifted education, even for a virtual school, Contreras shifted her teaching style. She found that the pandemic brought an increased enrollment of students not used to online learning. As a result, she changed how she initially engaged with her students.

“I created many tutorial videos to help them understand how to navigate the course and my feedback to help them as they got started,” she said. “I also noticed that students moved a lot faster through the courses since they had more free time. I had to adjust the timeline of grading to help them pace more effectively. LSS was ready for COVID-19 and a good model for online education. Because of that many students came to LSS during the pandemic and several of my students said they would stay even after since they like the model.”

The LSS model of online education also allows students, and teachers, to balance their education, professions and personal goals.

Contreras teaches from her home in Texas where she wakes up early to start her day. Her schedule allows her to complete her grading by her office hours so she can then spend that designated time with her students. After her teaching responsibilities are completed for the day, she works with her son, Sebastian, on his LSS first grade school work. Afternoons are open to take walks and play.

The flexibility also allows Contreras to take time for hobbies such as learning new languages, researching different cultures, taking walks, listening to audiobooks and spending free time with her sons Sebastian and Dylan and her husband, Arturo.

Throughout the virtual education experience, Contreras said students are also learning to take charge of their education and learning through the empowerment LSS provides them. This occurs through setting their own schedules and working at their own pace. It is important, Contreras said, for students and parents to find a study schedule that works best for them.

Nicole Geller 2It worked for Geller.

“LSS gave me confidence to balance tennis and academics,” Geller said. She said it prepared her with the time-management skills needed to not stress about “the unorganized mess in your head.”

Geller highlighted the importance of having a plan to follow, even at times broken down to the minute. She intends to use these skills to help her adjust as a college student when she starts at the University of Chicago in the fall of 2021 with plans to study international relations, political science or law and continue to play professional tennis. She knows this wouldn’t be possible without Contreras.

Geller’s message to her former teacher is simple.

“An impressive humongous thank you.”