On a counter in Penny Suydam's classroom at Immanuel Lutheran School, Batavia, there is a glass jar with a tag reading "We love Mrs. Suydam because ..."
And among the notes stuffed in there by her students last year, a theme emerges: Laughter.
"She lets us laugh," wrote one of her fifth-graders. Others noted Suydam laughs, too, and that she makes class fun.
"I laugh at myself a lot," Suydam said. "Because kids need to know it is OK to make mistakes."
And she is quite serious about that, because as a child she did not always feel that. Fourth and fifth grade were hard for her as a student, she said, particularly having adequate self-esteem.
Suydam credits a teacher she had in seventh and eighth grade for inspiring her to be a teacher.
"She just changed my whole outlook and attitude, and made me feel smart," she said. "I want to inspire somebody, or have a light bulb (of recognition) go off.
"I can't think of anything else to do."
In January, Suydam was named the 2016 Distinguished Lutheran Elementary Teacher by the Lutheran Education Association. The association is affiliated with the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod denomination, in which more than 18,000 teachers work at 2,255 preschools, elementary schools and high schools.
She was nominated by co-worker Sharon Dalpini, the school's athletic director and physical education teacher. Dalpini said Suydam was worthy not just for what she does in the classroom.
"To me, it (great teaching) is not just about what happens during the school day. It is about the extra time a teacher puts in," Dalpini said.
She cited Suydam's work as the school's cheerleading coach, her mentoring of other teachers and running the school talent show. Suydam also volunteers for Immanuel's church with confirmation classes and vacation Bible school.
"She has a servant heart, and she is very humble," Dalpini said.
And if you spy a bunch of jaunty, blue-and-white hats on the students, that's Suydam's doing, too.
About seven years ago, she was trying to think of a Christmas gift for students that wasn't just a trinket they would soon toss aside. Her mother suggested she knit hats in the school's colors.
"I whipped out 25 hats that year like nothing," Suydam said, assuming it would be a one-time deal.
Students thought otherwise, and now it is a tradition. Her father, after he retired, helped make the hats; she found a stockpile last year after he died. Her mother and cousin do now.
"It seems like the month of November we are pumping them out," she said with a laugh.
"I just want them (students) to have a memory of our year together."
Suydam, 43, has taught for 22 years, the last 12 at Immanuel. She grew up attending Lutheran schools, including Concordia College (now Concordia University) in River Forest. She taught at St. John in the Mayfair neighborhood in Chicago, and St. John in Forest Park. A desire for an easier commute from Hoffman Estates when her son was an infant prompted her to join Immanuel's staff.
"When you walked in into this building, you knew it was right. There was just a sense of being home," she said.
She especially likes teaching social studies, history and English ("which was my worst subject in grammar school.")
As a parochial schoolteacher, teaching the Christian faith is part of the job. But there can be laughs even during religion. They play rousing games of Bible Pictionary to review what they have learned, or she will supplement by showing YouTube videos made using Lego-block animations of Bible stories.
She tries to make faith relevant throughout the day.
"I want them to know He (God) is by our side," she said. For example, the current presidential election has students asking, during social-studies time, candidates' behavior and whether it is what God wants.
She also believes all children can learn. If a student is struggling to learn something, she might say, "That's the struggle God gave you, and we're going to work through it," and remind them of a Bible verse that, as a believer, a Christian "can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13)."
"I just have to be the one to find a way to meet their needs," Suydam said.