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CHICAGO — Our January Teacher of the Month uses his own life story to relate to his students.

Mr. Carl Stalla is a carpenter-turned-math teacher who helps students build their confidence.

“I always tell the students, ‘I can’t teach you if I don’t know you. I need to know you to teach you,’” he said.  “That’s very important to me and in doing so I’m able to reach them through the heart.”

Stalla always starts out the school year telling students a story — his story.

“When I was a kid my father passed away when I was 14,” he said.

He had to work to help support his family.

In his early 20s, he moved to California on his own.

“I lived on the streets for a couple of weeks and in doing so I learned a lot about what it’s like to be rock bottom,” he said.

But with the help of a stranger, he learned construction work. It was an injury that eventually led him to the classroom.

“I went and subbed at a couple of schools and I thought this was the coolest thing ever,” he said.

For the past 20 years, Stalla has been at R.H. Lee Elementary School in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood. He teaches 7th and 8th grade math.

“I think God puts you where you need to be. I was a superintendent carpenter for many years and to be in the classroom and pay it forward,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m paying it forward.”

He says for his students, failure is not a part of the equation.

“My goal is to be as diversified as possible. If you have students not catching on let’s get them going,” he said.

Seventh grader Nevaeh O’Neill nominated Stalla for Teacher of the Month.

“He helps students and whenever you don’t understand anything you can always go to his desk and he’ll help you and make sure you understand,” she said.

“When I heard I won teacher of the month I was like, ‘No. My kids won teacher of the month. It’s not me, it’s them,’ he said. “I’m just encouraging them. My wife always tells me to suck it up and just enjoy the moment and it’s hard to do that because it’s the kids not me.”