The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award: Shaping Careers in Education

Sara MartinezTeachers

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award (RLTA) is a professional development program for Chicago Public School teachers. Awardees learn to develop balanced literacy practices and bring a love of reading into their classrooms. Teachers can apply to be either an individual awardee or a study group member. The RLTA alumni network consists of over 5,400 educators who continue to use their learning to spread a lifelong love of reading to their students and others. Meet three RLTA alumni and learn how their experiences in the program helped shaped their careers in education.

Tai Basurto

Tai joined RLTA in 2005 as a study group member at Pritzker Elementary. She reflects: “I transferred from a private school with a lot of social privilege into a CPS school that needed more resources and I had a lot of awakenings that first year. The reading coach provided by RLTA was so helpful because she was an experienced CPS teacher who would come in and work with our study group.”

Three years ago, Tai transitioned into the role of principal at Dore Elementary School after ten years of teaching. “I became a principal because I felt like what I needed as a teacher was not being nurtured,” Tai explains. “I wanted to be a part of a community of educators and feel supported by my peers and by my administration and challenged by my work. As a principal I can create these conditions for teachers and make them feel like a part of a community. My experiences in RLTA and other professional developments helped me realize this because of all the opportunities it gave me.”

Since RLTA did not have a presence at Dore Elementary at the time, she created a study group and became the group’s leader. “I wanted my teachers to gain access to this program. I saw RLTA as an opportunity for my staff to be a part of high-quality learning.”

Tai remembers RLTA workshops emphasizing the importance of access to books. When Dore Elementary moved into a different building last January, Tai was finally able to establish a school library where her students have access to new and culturally relevant books. She also has implemented a balanced literacy curriculum in Dore’s reading department.

When asked what her biggest takeaway from being an awardee was, she states, “RLTA is so valuable to me as an educator because the focus isn’t just on content and pedagogy—it also on your own development as a leader. When you’re an educator having socialization with other educators is so important, especially when you want to transition into a leadership role. RLTA helped me make this transition by nurturing my own development so I could become a leader. I have a reading specialist certification but that’s all theory—the Rochelle Lee award put it into practice.”

Brian Puerling

“Rochelle Lee helped me keep certain things at the forefront in my learning and helped me maintain a learner perspective. I gained so much knowledge from people in the program and now I get to share some of my own learning.”

Brian has received the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award four times. He applied as individual awardee in 2007 during his first year of teaching and continued as a study group member. “At Burley [Elementary] it was standard practice to apply, Brian says. “Every teacher saw the value in becoming an awardee and liked the program.”

During his time as an awardee, he learned a lot about how to incorporate the importance of books into his preschool classroom. “I set up a lending library in my classroom and built out a whole literacy practice into my morning routine,” he shares. He introduced new books into his library and discussed where they came from before letting students take them home. “Seeing the home-to-school connection was important and knowing parents and students were interacting with the books.”

Brian is currently the Director of Education Technology at Catherine Cook School. “Being an awardee helped me realize the importance of being a reader and sharing it with my students,” he says. “We have signs outside our classrooms about reading and a Book Awards every January where students chose the books they want to win.”

Not only does Brian continue to establish literacy practices into his school community, he also does curriculum consulting for children’s TV media (such as Sesame Street and Nick shows) and is the author of the Teaching in the Digital Age series.

“Rochelle Lee helped me keep certain things at the forefront in my learning and helped me maintain a learner perspective. I gained so much knowledge from people in the program and now I get to share some of my own learning. I think of learning as a two-way street and now I’m always trying to help teachers make connections to literacy and reading with their students,” he concludes.

Melissa Hendler

Melissa applied to RLTA during her first year of teaching in 2015. Her school, Brentano Elementary, had a long standing relationship with the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award program. Also, at the time Brentano had limited funding for teacher professional development and classroom libraries. “I decided to apply because I wanted to gain access to valuable resources I was not receiving,” she says.

“I believe RLTA does a great job at closing the gap for CPS and its students in terms of an equity standpoint,” she shares. “Brentano went from almost closing down to being a level 1+ school in five years. The Rochelle Lee [Teacher] Award helped close this gap through the professional development myself and other teachers received. I was able to work with teachers all across CPS and hear their stories on what they had access to and what they didn’t have access to. This program was a common place where everyone has access to high-quality professional development,” she says.

Melissa is currently the assistant principal at Taft High School and works primarily with the English language learners department, the diverse learners department, and acquisition department. She reflects that her time in RLTA gave her a step-up into the leadership position she has today.

“My first time as study group leader gave me my first real opportunity to understand the complexity of adult learning and make it meaningful for everyone,” she says. “Being a study group leader gave me the opportunity to become a leader in my own school community as well as have the opportunity to listen and learn from teachers in my school about what type of professional development they wanted.”

Melissa received her Masters degree before being a resident principal at Northside College Prep last year. “I would always go back to what I learned from my study group meetings and mirror how I ran my team meetings during my residency based on this,” she states. “The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award gave me a peek at what an assistant principal role looks like and I’m very grateful for all the opportunities it provided me along my way in becoming a leader.”