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ROMEOVILLE, Ill. — Inside Mr. Mark Levine’s classroom at Lukancic Middle School in Romeoville, there’s a collaborative exchange of ideas.

Students have said he pushes them beyond their limits. They call his approach “LRC” based on listening to his students while respecting them and challenging them.

“My students aren’t going to learn if I’m just talking at them. If my students are talking with me and if my students are doing, that’s when the learning happens,” Levine said.

He’s the honors social studies for 7th and 8th graders.

“Before we even get to the academic side, I want them to have an idea what their world view is and I want them to feel empowered to speak their mind and have their opinions and know how to do research to support their opinions,” Levine said.

Levine has been teaching for more than 20 years. Earlier, he had a career as a psychotherapist, acquiring skills he now puts to good use.

“It gives me a little bit of an edge to understand what makes kids think,” he said.

With a lot of listening and a bit of humor, he’s boosting their academic confidence and building connections to help students understand history through the lens of various perspectives.

“My students come up with ideas and opinions and perspectives that teach me, and through the years I learn more from my students than I could ever teach them, and they teach me how to teach them better,” Levine said.

For 7th grader Caitlyn Ries, Levine’s classes are engaging and exciting.

“He completely changed my view on social studies. He treats us like equals. He doesn’t dilute the topics,” she said.

She nominated Levine for Teacher of the Month.

Levine’s reputation extends beyond just the students in his class.

“For whatever reason, since becoming a teacher students have found some sort of sanctuary with me, sense of safety, whether it’s going through rough times and coming and crying sometime, sometimes students that I don’t even have. They just know my reputation,” he said.

Levine added that his approach has led many students to confide in him in otherwise very difficult times.

“For the past many number of years, a decade, I’ve had probably 18 to 20 students come out to me as part of the LGBTQ community,” he said. “That fills my cup. That makes me feel like my purpose in life has been realized.”

This year, he hung a pride flag outside his door, serving as a constant reminder of his classroom as a safe space.

“I believe respect starts from the teacher. We need to respect our students. Respect their differences. Respect their diversity, respect their level of education and what’s going on behind the scenes for them,” Levine said.

Award sponsor Ankin Law presented Mr. Levine with a $1,000 check for the school. When he learned of the honor, he was initially embarrassed.

“I’m not one to collect and celebrate accolades personally, but my heart just filled with love and warmth,” Levine said.

Levine said he’s bursting with appreciation for his students who have been very vocal in showing their appreciation for him.

“That’s what’s been happening all day today, kids high-fiving me and coming up and hugging me and telling me I deserve this. That’s pretty powerful and pretty wonderful,” Levine said.

Mr. Levine wants to use the award money to help with literacy building at the school. If you know of an extraordinary teacher who deserves to be honored, submit a nomination here.