Natalie Saia and Tony Leva showed their students a picture.
Next to a girl dressed all in pink stood a boy, head down, dressed all in black.
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Natalie SaiaAge: 28
Occupation: Language arts teacher
Education: Bachelor's degree in secondary education English from DePaul University; working toward master's degree in curriculum and instruction with an English as a second language concentration at Olivet Nazarene University
Activities: Yellow Team (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support program); Building Leadership Team
Honors: Nominated this year by Palatine Township Elementary District 15 for the Illinois State Board of Education's Those Who Excel award
Tony LevaAge: 40
Occupation: Special education teacher
Education: Bachelor's degree in sociology and master's degree in special education from Northern Illinois University
Activities: Basketball coach, committee chairman of When Pigs Fly fundraiser, Building Leadership Team
Honors: National Board Certification (exceptional needs) since 2002; two-time recipient of the superintendent's Communication Council Award; nominated this year by the district for the Illinois State Board of Education's Those Who Excel award
"Those who are the hardest to love need it the most," the picture read.
Lunchroom problems several months ago overflowed into their language arts class at Walter Sundling Junior High School in Palatine.
It wasn't bullying, Saia says, but kids butting heads.
In a classroom where about half of the students have special needs, Saia and Leva knew they had to drop an entire lesson and deliver a new one: how to treat people who are different with respect.
"It's OK to raise your hand and be wrong," Leva said. "No one's going to laugh. No one's going to make fun of you or whisper underneath their breath. And if they do, we're on top of it very, very quickly."
The duo tasked the students with reflecting on the picture in their journals. And then some of them stepped forward and read, owning up to their mistakes in front of their peers.
Paired up for the first time this school year, the teachers had managed to create a classroom where students -- some with autism, learning disabilities, behavioral challenges -- feel comfortable enough to take risks.
"They have to be emotionally there first," Leva said. "They have to feel safe first."
The Daily Herald has named Saia and Leva Top Teachers, a recognition of suburban educators for their impact in and outside of the classroom.
The instructors say they spend 20 percent of their job on language arts. The rest goes to the off-the-cuff "life lessons," said Leva, a no-nonsense basketball coach.
Their classroom is where kids on the cusp of their teenage years learn to collaborate, set goals and stay organized. And "it's where kids can find their own level of dignity," Leva said.
Their partnership goes back to spring 2013. Walter Sundling Principal Jason Dietz decided to team Saia, who teaches the schools's most advanced students, with Leva, who teaches students on the opposite end of the academic spectrum.
"It's not always easy to do that," Dietz said of the model. "But we have two teachers willing to learn from each other."
During a recent class, Saia and Leva explained the motivations of characters in the Agatha Christie whodunit, "And Then There Were None." Leva has a flair for drama, donning a mysterious voice as a narrator. Saia is the expert librarian, matching students' interests with books pulled from the many shelves next to her desk. They rarely interrupt or talk over each other.
In short, they click.
"It's really natural," Saia said. "I've never had to compromise or say, 'Oh, OK, we'll see how that will go.'"
The blending of their teaching styles appears to be working. Struggling learners have made "considerable gains" in reading and writing, the principal said. The growth boils down to the pair's preparation and "ability to change on the fly," Dietz explained.
Saia and Leva expect students to meet quarterly benchmarks for reading outside of class. They let kids check out books from the classroom library, as long as they show some personal responsibility. "Treat books with care and respect," a sign cautions.
Together, they have inspired some of the reluctant readers to take on the 500-page novel.
"Words can't describe how awesome these teachers are," Brandyn Manzek, 12, said. "If I wanted to describe how awesome they are and how they affected my learning, I'd have to do an entire interpretive dance."
Their engaging approach -- teachers and students ring a bell each time they use tongue-twisters from the "Word Wall" -- keeps seventh-graders eager to learn vocabulary, Manzek said.
"When I move on to eighth grade, I'll seriously miss these guys," the Palatine student said.
They hope to continue co-teaching next year, dropping hints to administrators. Saia has spent four years at the junior high; Leva, seven. But they treat each other as equals even when students sometimes try to pit one against the other.
"I felt comfortable knowing that I'm as much a teacher in here as Natalie is," Leva said.
Outside of all the reading and writing, Saia and Leva rallied students around "When Pigs Fly," an annual event doubling as a fundraiser (this year, the school generated more than $10,000) for nonprofit Palatine Assisting Through Hope and for the Palatine Township food pantry.
Both teachers are familiar faces at schoolwide events.
"It just shows the kids that their teachers care more about them," PTA President Kris Ahlgrim said.
Colleagues have chosen both to represent them in a team that meets with the principal twice a month. There, they tackle student discipline, scheduling, relationships with parents -- "all things Sundling," Dietz said.
Both are leaders humble enough to know where they need to improve, he said.
Leva, new to the realm of language arts this school year, credits Saia for teaching him how to nurture a "literacy-rich" classroom.
Saia, new to teaching a roster of special-needs students, credits Leva for teaching her how to be flexible.
Their example of teamwork reaches the class of 19. Since the journaling assignment, the atmosphere has calmed down, Saia said, and there are no obvious divisions.
"You can see they've grown so much," she said.