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Take Five with Alejandra De La Pena and Sheela Karsten: Pre-k Teachers at Lloyd Elementary

19 April 2024

Both of these incredible pre-k teachers have served their school community for over 20 years.

Alejandra De La Pena and Sheela Karsten

Take Five is a series that highlights some of the many members of the CPS community who are going above and beyond for our schools. If you know someone who is making a difference, nominate them to be featured here.

This week, in honor of applications now being open for next year’s pre-k programs, we’re excited to spotlight two of the District’s amazing preschool teachers. Meet Alejandra De La Pena and Sheela Karsten, who have both been serving the youngest learners at Lloyd Elementary School in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood for more than 20 years.

When reflecting on their time at Lloyd, these passionate, talented teachers both describe a school community that is strong, caring, and involved. Learn more about these two veteran preschool teachers below!

**Please note: the application for free full-day pre-k for four-year-olds and half-day pre-k for three-year-olds during the 2024–25 school year is open now! Families can apply on the Chicago Early Learning website.**

How did you know that you wanted to become a teacher?

Ms. De La Pena: Teaching wasn’t always on my radar; I originally wanted to be a doctor. However, I thankfully took a job as a teacher assistant, and I just fell in love with it. That first time that I got to watch a student who had been struggling have a lightbulb moment was so special, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do.

Ms. Karsten: My third grade teacher had a really big impact on me. Up until that point, I really struggled with reading. I was able to get by, but once I hit third grade, I couldn’t fake it anymore. My teacher gave me so much support, and really stuck by me and helped me learn how to read. 

But my real love of teaching others began when I was in high school. I grew up in India, and there was a Missionaries of Charity house near my school. The nuns would give us projects, usually collecting donations to help the children who lived in the nearby slums. I remember wanting to do more. I started saving up my money so I could give it to the children’s parents. Then, instead of begging, they could come with me and I could teach them lessons. We would start with the alphabet, numbers, and math. I started with two children, then I got some of my friends involved, and the project grew. I started something small, but the Missionaries of Charity home kept it alive and it became a big thing. 

How would you describe your teaching style?

Ms. De La Pena: I love inquiry-based learning, and designing my curriculum around what students are genuinely interested in. For example, when they were doing construction on the playground outside of our classroom window, students were obviously very interested. So that became a construction site study! We interviewed the construction workers; we did observational drawings right through the window; and students learned about construction tools, soil, and turf.

Ms. Karsten: I teach in a blended classroom, so a lot of my teaching is centered around differentiated instruction. I also love to incorporate technology in the classroom. Some students really excel when using technology to help them communicate. Last year, we had Bee-Bots, which are robots that look like bees, and they helped my students get interested in counting and math. We’ve also been able to discuss as a classroom how we can use the internet as a tool to help us research specific questions and topics.

What is the best part of your work?

Ms. De La Pena: This is the only job I’ve ever had where it doesn’t feel like a job. When you walk through the door, you have 20 faces that are so genuinely happy to see you. And as a teacher, even though you’re just one person, you can make a big impact in your students’ lives.

Ms. Karsten: Every day is different, and you get to constantly innovate. You also get to be silly and have fun. When I go to bed every night, I feel fulfilled and like I have done something good with my day. Even on challenging days, I get to feel like I am doing something worthwhile.

Why is high-quality pre-k so important?

Ms. De La Pena: There’s a misconception that pre-k is basically just daycare, which is not true. Preschoolers are learning important skills that they are going to carry with them for the rest of their lives. Pre-k students are learning how to read, how to have conversations and speak their minds, and how to express their emotions.

Ms. Karsten: Pre-k is where students learn the foundation for many topics, but especially communication skills. Children are like sponges at this age; you see such a huge amount of growth in such a small period of time, and it’s a really important time for learning.

What is one lesson that you hope your students take away from their time in your class?

Ms. De La Pena: It’s okay to try something new!

Ms. Karsten: How to turn “I don’t know” and “I can’t” into “I don’t know, yet I can...” and “I can’t yet, but...” This helps the students view their challenges in a more positive way.

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