Ah, I love Mondays because it means I get to start my week feeling SUPER inspired thanks to educators like Natalie.
Talk about energy and passion! It literally oozes out of her responses! I absolutely admire her attention to detail, her desire to make every day a great day of learning, and most importantly, her humble spirit.
Thank you, Natalie, for blessing is with your wisdom this week!
Name: Natalie Sonnier Chustz
Tell us who you are! How long have you been working in the education field? What school district are you in?
My name is Natalie Sonnier Chustz, and I have been in the education world since 2012. I have a wide range of educational experiences including kindergarten, first, and second grade teacher, 8th grade math teacher, Educational technology and instructional coach. My Bachelor’s degree is in Early childhood education with an add on certification in middle school mathematics. Also, I obtained a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology Leadership and a graduate certificate in Instructional Coaching. I teach first grade now in a private school in Lafayette, Louisiana and have many other roles in professional development around my community. With a combined effort, a colleague and I organized EdCamp Lafayette. Also, I am the founder of Ipadpalooza in Louisiana while serving as Lafayette parish Chapter treasurer for the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana (A+PEL) organization. I am a motivator, believer, innovator, and educator; hence my FAVORITE shirt that I first saw at a What Great Educators Do Differently Conference in Texas this year! :)
What subject/grade do you teach?
This school year, I transitioned from working with other educators to head back to the classroom. You can find me teaching 19 kiddos in first grade. I have the best of both worlds. I enjoy the classroom setting with an abundance of educational technology and am supported by an awesome administration team and other colleagues.
Who was your favourite teacher when you were a student? What made them stand out from the rest?
Oh geez. I had a lot of teacher role models in my elementary days. I would have to say my second and third grade teachers were really special. Ms. McCarroll, my second grade teacher, was the one who showed the most compassion and was always caring. She was always bringing real life experiences to our classroom. I will never forget this one particular time she dressed up as Amelia Bedelia. That is probably one of the defining moments and one reason I wanted to be a teacher. The fun, the creativity, the enjoyable moments you have with students everyday are priceless. Ms. McCarroll and I still keep in touch via Facebook. Oh, the joys of social media!
What was learning like growing up for you? Easy, challenging?
As a student, I was very low in regards to reading and reading comprehension in elementary, middle, and high school. I remember struggling in class, had to go to Sylvan Learning Center (ironic, I actually worked there in college too), and had a private tutor until my junior year in high school. All my friends were very bright and did not seem to struggle. My interest and strength was always mathematics. I remember in highschool helping my friends before a math test. As I went on to college, I struggled with the basic English and writing courses, but towards my junior and senior level classes, I started to get in the groove and found my niche. My educational courses were a breeze, and I really enjoyed getting to know the school systems and enjoyed getting a glimpse into the real world of teaching. After my undergraduate degree, I decided to make a goal for my Master’s Degree. I earned a 4.0 GPA while teaching full time! Sure enough, the hard work and dedication paid off, and I obtained my goal. It wasn’t always easy, but I did not give up.
Who or what inspired you to become an educator?
I do not think it was one individual who inspired me to become an educator. Like I said before, I had some pretty awesome teachers. I grew up in an environment that valued education and continued learning, but did not really know any other educators except for my teachers. My family was mostly in the medical profession, and I knew I was not cut out for the medical field after my first semester in college. Now, I have several family members who are following in my footsteps. My sister is enrolled in music education, my niece is teaching second grade, and my other niece is graduating with a double education degree this May! We have the teachers in our family now. Every day, I am inspired to be the best educator to my students and others in the school setting. I am so blessed to work with some amazing educators who value the same aspects I do in the school setting. The school community, my students, the parents of my students, are one of a kind and I will always call my school my “Happy Place.” Hence as my students say, “Mrs. Chustz’s happy place chair” when picking a spot for flexible seating and the sweet $3 sign I found at my favorite place… Target Bulleye Spot ($1 spot).
Describe what your dream classroom would look like.
Well, my dream classroom. Since I learned about my transition back to the classroom last year, I dreamed of my ideal classroom. In my spare time, I drew designs and arrangements, I shopped frugally for new furniture and materials, and explored my options. I really enjoyed the setup I had in 2nd grade, but knew I wanted tables. Sure enough, our admin ordered whiteboard tables (AH-MA-ZING, order them now!), and everything fell into place. I do Daily 5 for reading stations, math groups, and have some flexible seating for my students. I have a class library, create area, whole group carpet area for read alouds of discussions, an individual spot for each student, technology area with Promethean Board and iPads, and much more! The natural light from the windows is awesome on a sunny day in Louisiana, and the two doors in the classroom are awesome for dismissal/entering the classroom. I really can’t complain. I like the set up and think my Blue Gator (mascot at school) theme works well for my first graders. Heck, in second grade I was a little over monkeys and safari come Christmas. You live, you learn, and you make changes and adapt. I could probably do a whole blog post on my classroom, seriously!
Tell us about a challenging moment you’ve faced in the classroom. How did you deal with it?
Every day, there is a challenge. Good challenge. Bad challenge. Hard challenge. Academic challenge. Social Challenge. Design Challenge. Etc. Probably one of the most challenging moments I faced as an educator occurred this school year in August. With just one half a day of school and back to school visit behind us, on the second day (first full day), my home flooded. School was cancelled. The lessons, back to school activities, and the getting to know my student activities I anticipated for quite some time (I admit, I was planning on my free time in April for my future first grade kiddos) completed were washed away… for the time being. I was worried. I was afraid. I was scared. Yes, for my home and my belongings, but for that precious first full day of school with my first graders. School was cancelled, but for the next week I had to deal with home related matters: insurance, adjustors, deductibles, demolition, contractors, packing up our once semi-organized home, etc. It was not a fun process, but I leaned on many colleagues, family members, my student’s parents, and my faith. It was a scary time. It was a challenge and without a doubt, I got through it with the help of others. I always want to help. I want to do things myself and not rely on others. This was a challenge that the roles reversed, and I listened to a wise administrator. The moment I stepped foot on campus a week later, I felt at home. I felt a sense of completeness. I felt love. I saw smiling faces after a week of confusion. I received little hugs and kind words. I knew this was going to be one of the best years of my teaching career.
What makes you a great educator? (Come on, toot your own horn!)
I do not think I am a great educator, but I am an educator and we are continuing to grow in our profession every day. Now a days you must be real with yourself and others. Teachers, educators, admins, or anyone in our profession has to be understanding of the wave of ongoing learning. I didn’t really understand that term until I worked with other educators. You have to be willing to make change to better your students and your professional career. I think that is an asset that is essential to our profession and something that I hope makes me stand out from others. I know a lot of my colleagues have that growth mindset and ongoing learning trait, and I know the students pick up on those traits.
What do you do to enhance your personal learning?
I never enjoyed Twitter or learning through others until I started working with other teachers through an organization. Since then, a whole new world has opened up. I love to learn from others, I love to collaborate with others, and I love seeing what is going on in other classrooms around the world. Twitter has been a game changes as well as all the other technology tools and educational conferences. I am a professional development queen, but have tried to calm it down to focus on my first grade kiddos.
If your students could describe you, what would they say?
“Mrs. Chustz is very nice. You are a kind and helpful. You are a very great teacher and I am very lucky you I got you as a teacher. You share a lot. You are very nice. I like that you are my teacher. You are the best. The first grade class is a good class. I love this class. “ These are a few words from my students.
What was your best teaching moment?
My best teaching moments would have to be the little things that happen every day. Every moment. Seriously! The highlight of this year would probably be learning the design thinking process with my students and seeing how creative 6 and 7 years old can be. Also, during a conversation hearing one student say, “Mrs. Chustz, you have to be patient and wait for your house to be rebuilt.” This student’s empathy and real life example is what teaching is all about.
How do you balance your personal life from your teaching life?
Balancing your personal life and your teaching life is hard for most educators. This year, I implemented a rule to focus more on my family and friends. Sometimes it is hard because I have built a strong community of friends who are also my colleagues. We get each other. We have similar classrooms. We love educational technology. Our husbands, well I know mine in particular, know that when we get together outside of work… school and our students are a big topic of interest. It is a really hard balance, but every teacher needs to find that. I love photography, social media, Netflix binge watching, an occasional walk/work out, and enjoying time with family and friends. I do not have kids of my own… YET, but I know when that happens I will need more of a balance with my work and home life.
Have you ever experienced burnout? What/who helped you cope?
Burnouts do happen. For me and other educators, they tend to happen right before holidays and breaks. This year, I was EXHAUSTED to say the least. From teaching, tutoring, house work, keeping up with everyday things, etc. I have the mentality to keep trucking on. With the help of my colleagues, they really helped me to cope and ease some of those burnouts. My husband and family are extremely supportive and help a lot as well.
What do you love most about teaching?
I love the joy of teaching every day. Every day is really sometimes an unknown. Yes, you lesson plan, you find activities, you run copies, you find new technologies, etc. but those light bulb moments, those discussions, those creations are one of kind and do not happen with planning. That is my favorite part of teaching. Waking up each day with a new beginning and hopefully some smiling faces in the learning experiences or endeavors.
There may be teachers reading this who are in need of a reminder why they’re great educators. What would you say to help them lift their spirits?
If you are an educator, don’t give up. Embrace or stay in the struggle. Teaching is hard work. We put other students before of our own family sometimes. Teaching can be a challenge. Teaching is in some way a work of art. The best is YET to come! Enjoy every moment.
Thanks for reading!
Jam Gamble - Connector of People, Ideas and Energy