'Safe, supported and loved': How a Schaumburg teacher nurtures students amid pandemic
Though her career has yet to include a school year completely unaffected by COVID-19, sixth-grade teacher Sukaina Hussain of Hoover Math & Science Academy in Schaumburg is already being recognized by her colleagues and students for her talent and skill in working with young people.
She is the Daily Herald's Top Teacher for September.
"Sukaina is a joy to be around," said Cassie Zingler, principal of the Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 school. "She has a positive, optimistic energy. She really values relationships with her students."
Zingler specified that the third-year teacher builds these relationships by learning about her students' interests, families and cultures.
Hussain identifies her own second-grade teacher in Bensenville, whom she remembers only as Miss Sweeney, as both her inspiration to go into teaching as well as the model for many of the approaches she uses today.
"I think it was definitely the environment she created," Hussain said. "I believe the space can do so much. Her demeanor, calmness, the way she presented herself was huge."
While her role model was a teacher of second-graders, part of Hussain's mission is to prepare her sixth-graders for the workload -- and separations -- that will come with going off to different junior high schools in District 54 the following year.
"I had to adapt, just slightly though, because children are still children," she said. "I want my students to feel safe, supported and loved."
Strategy needs to be more conscious during the early weeks of the school year as she and her pupils are still getting to know one another. And the impacts of COVID -- whether they be last year's hybrid-learning model or this year's continued use of masks -- need to compensated for.
"You have to do a lot. There's some routine-building you have to do," Hussain said. "We like to smile a little bigger here so you can see the smile through the eyes."
Barely a month into the new school year, students Mia Lukatsky and John Cheon said they already feel very familiar with their homeroom teacher. John added that the classroom dynamic almost feels like it's been in place since the beginning of the summer.
Both 11-year-olds commented on the approaches Hussain takes to keep each class period fresh and interesting, including activities chosen from a random selection of "Twist of Fun" cards.
"It's been fun," Mia said of the year so far, adding that an older friend gave her a hint of what getting Ms. Hussain in sixth grade would be like.
One reading class begins with a brief "Twist of Fun" discussion of whether students would rather have a magic carpet or a personal robot, and ends with the latest round of a staring-contest tournament among pairs of kids.
But along the way, they've also analyzed a written piece on the Iroquois Confederacy for evidence of its author's point of view, and then discussed whether they agree or disagree with the suggestion that the Native American government influenced the development of the U.S. Constitution.
Despite the continuation of its specific title, Hoover Math & Science Academy is again a regular neighborhood elementary school in District 54 that doesn't have a specific emphasis on those subjects in its regular curriculum. But Hussain is a coach of the school's GEMS program -- Girls in Engineering, Math & Science -- because she believes girls benefit from some extra encouragement to pursue those fields.
"Just to make sure they grow up to be amazing leaders," she explained.
Hussain herself is a product of District 54 schools and went to Conant High School in Hoffman Estates.
After being forced to move from Bensenville by O'Hare Airport expansion while she was still very young, her family relocated to Schaumburg.
"My dad wanted to move to Schaumburg for the schools," she said.
But just as it was a Bensenville teacher who inspired her initial interest in education, Hussain's later experience of District 54 and the supportive environment it provided made working there specifically a career goal.
She was delighted to achieve that immediately after her 2019 graduation from Roosevelt University.
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Curriculum vitae: Sukaina Hussain
• Sixth-grade teacher, Hoover Math & Science Academy, Schaumburg (2019-present)
• Equity and Inclusion Task Force: Advises and challenges the school system in topics related to social justice
• School Leadership Team: Supports staff, students, and families while striving for a positive, successful community
• Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education, Roosevelt University, 2019
• James B. Conant High School, Hoffman Estates (Class of 2014)
• Robert Frost Junior High School, Schaumburg (Class of 2010)
• Michael Collins Elementary School, Schaumburg (Class of 2008)
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Tips from a top teacher
• Connect with your students. It's common for educators to zone in on crossing off their to-do list during the school day. From the first day to the last, I suggest making time to learn about your students along with allowing them time to learn about each other. Laughing, learning, and connecting with each other will result in the ultimate bond.
• Embrace and make change. Just because you have a set schedule and curriculum does not mean you can't add a twist that you know your class will benefit from. Some of my memorable teaching moments came from being vulnerable. I encourage risk taking!
• Trust your students. A large part of my success came from giving my students the opportunity to make decisions and problem solve with me. Your students are some of your biggest supporters and want the chance to lead.