Nichelle Stigger is the 2022 recipient of the Staszak Outstanding Educator of the Year Award. | Provided

Standing in the hallways of Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park, sixth-grade language and literature teacher Nichelle Stigger smiles and waves to students passing by, setting an example in what has become her mission to “lead with love.” 

The recipient of the 2023 William Staszak Outstanding Educator of the Year Award, Stigger, 41, has created a reputation for herself in the halls of the middle school as someone dedicated to setting a tone of acceptance, fighting for equity, and encouraging students to believe in their dreams. 

Though she always wanted to teach, she struggled with test taking in school, eventually following a different career path in sales and marketing. However, the itch didn’t go away and while planning to start a family, Stigger, then 36 years old, knew she needed to work in a field where she could make a difference in people’s lives, and ultimately decided to pursue teaching, earning her master’s degree from Columbia College. 

“Because I struggled as a student, I thought that I could offer that support from my own experiences as a student,” she said. Receiving extended time on tests helped her flourish academically. 

Stigger began her second career at St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy, on the Oak Park side of Austin Boulevard, teaching math. During her time at the school, Stigger, now the mother of a 3-year-old, became concerned about her health and found herself having to advocate to be taken seriously, saying she felt it in her body that “something was wrong.”

Despite a PET scan revealing a nodule in her lung, doctors dismissed her concerns as she outwardly presented a healthy image.

“I was young. They were using all of these stereotypes of what a person should look like if they have cancer and shouldn’t,” she said. “They doubted that the mass in my lungs was cancer so that was a fight for me, I had to go back and forth.” 

Nichelle Stigger, alongside her husband Aaron Stigger and her son Parker Stigger. | Provided

Stigger continued to advocate for herself, for her sake and as primary caregiver for her son, who has a severe bleeding disorder. 

“I am not just a mom but I have to be here to make sure I am taking care of my son’s health,” she said. 

Six months after the original discovery of the nodule in her lung, a time Stigger recalls as a depressing period in her life, she underwent emergency surgery to remove the mass, which had continued to grow. After a biopsy, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and had her lower lobe removed.

Throughout this journey, Stigger held onto her passion for teaching, and upon being cleared from surgery knew she had to go back to work, for herself and for her son. 

She was hired for her dream job at Brooks, 325 S. Kenilworth Ave. While the road wasn’t easy, she drew inspiration from her host teacher, leaning into teaching to get her through the dark times. 

“The community I was in, I don’t even think they understood how much they have helped me these past seven years, transitioning from cancer to cancer-free,” Stigger said. 

Not wanting to take a minute for granted, she encourages her students to find themselves in the here and now. 

“Don’t wait to be the person you want to be, to ask the questions you want to ask, to do the thing you want to do,” she said. “Don’t wait until someone in your family dies to rekindle that friendship, or until that thing has passed you by. Do it now.”  

Pulling from her own life experiences, Stigger shows her students that sometimes things don’t come easy and labels aren’t what make you. 

“We all have different points in which we learn,” she said. “It is all relative, and not to get hung up on titles, or classrooms that you are in, but seeing the work as something that is important and that you are passionate about. It is about putting yourself out there. … Yes, it is hard but you have to keep going and keep growing.” 

Her spirit and the ability to look at everything through a lens of love and equity is what sets her apart from others, said April Capuder, principal at Brooks. Capuder also praised Stigger for her commitment to the school, saying she is involved in the planning and execution of Black History Month and other activities such as helping students form a cheer club, bringing a lively energy in the building and being a reliable adult in her students’ lives. 

Stigger, who credits her students with teaching her about love, said she is amazed at how much her students give back to her every single day. 

“Education, to me, means so much more than just this basic ‘I am just a teacher.’ It feels as if there is a reason I am here and that this place has given me this support in ways that help me move through my journey,” she said.

Join the discussion on social media!