Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Emily Caldarelli (RI '16)

January 26, 2017

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Fourth-grade teacher Emily Caldarelli (RI '16) observes her students carefully in the first moments of each day to figure out who overslept, quarreled with a sibling or left their homework on the kitchen table. "If they've had a rough start to their day, they know that I'm there if they need to chat," she says. Emily won Rhode Island's 2016-17 Milken Educator Award at Paul Cuffee Lower School in Providence on October 18, 2016.

Milken Educator Awards: Why did you decide to teach elementary school?

Emily: I love the "joie de vivre" young people possess. Their sense of wonder about the world and community they live in is infectious. I like that elementary kids enjoy school and get along with one another. They are still figuring out who they are. It's my privilege to be a part of this.

MEA: What was your first job?

Emily: My first job was babysitting for neighborhood children when I was 12 years old. I learned how to be the responsible one in charge while having fun at the same time. I also learned how to be diplomatic when siblings would quarrel, and how to coach kids through conflicts while making sure everyone felt heard. I definitely carry all of these things with me to the classroom today. Babysitting taught me so much about being with younger kids, even though I was still just a kid myself.

MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?

Emily: My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Turcotte, was a second-year teacher. She was creative, hardworking, passionate and most of all kind. I would visit her a few times a year after I graduated from fifth grade. Sometimes I would volunteer to help out in her classroom, and after college I was even able to substitute teach in her class. Now we both teach fourth grade, and I run into her from time to time. I was very lucky—most of my teachers were amazing!

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MEA: Any educators in your family?

Emily: My aunt Barbara is a teacher in an inner-city school. She was always talking about how fulfilling her career was, and I saw how dedicated she was to her students. I could tell that she was really making a difference in these kids' lives. I wanted to have a career where I felt like I was having a positive impact on the future generation too. Now when we get together we speak about new ideologies in teaching and share professional books. It's wonderful to be able to bounce ideas off my aunt. I've admired her my whole life and I enjoy discussing education with her.

MEA: What was your favorite subject?

Emily: In elementary school I loved math. I enjoyed memorizing my multiplication facts and could beat everyone in the game "Around the World." However, I wasn't as excited about reading. My third-grade teacher helped get me hooked on books by recommending James and the Giant Peach. I read it and fell in love with Roald Dahl's wacky sense of humor. Now I try to pair my students with the right books to meet their interests.  Once you can hook a kid on reading, there's no turning back.

MEA: Tell us about your first class.

Emily: My first class was a long-term substitute position that ended up going through the end of the school year. It never quite felt like my own classroom, since I was expecting the teacher to return and take over. I think the students felt the same way. Looking back, I should have just made the changes I wanted to make in October when I began. I should have started over with the class, making rules together and discussing our hopes and dreams as a community. I remember being so overwhelmed with everything. I was surprised that it wasn't just behavior that was difficult, it was lesson planning, differentiating, learning the content, reading groups, etc. Nothing can really prepare you for that first year. You just have to try your best and get through it.

MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?

Emily: I think it energized my students. They saw that someone who works hard and genuinely loves her job can get recognized. I hope it inspires them to find a career they are passionate about. I think they were in total shock about the $25,000 (and so was I)!

MEA: What do you hope your students remember about you and their time in your class?

Emily: I hope they remember the peaceful community that we set up in our classroom, based on kindness and trust and being your true self. I hope they remember challenging themselves and taking risks, and how great it feels to work hard. Most of all I hope they remember how much I care about them and their lives both inside and outside of the classroom. I'll always be there for my students and I hope they know that.

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MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?

Emily: In August I meet my families in their homes or at school (their choice). It's a great way to get to know each family before school even starts. I'm always available for parents through email, phone calls and texts, and I send newsletters to keep them informed about what we're doing in school. I'm also a big fan of FreshGrade, an app that connects parents with whatever we're learning about on a day-to-day basis. It allows me to take photos and videos and instantly share with parents. My hope is that they can keep the conversations going at home with their children and discuss what we're currently working on in school.

MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?

Emily: First thing in the morning, as my students arrive. I do a lot of observing at that time. You can tell who overslept, who had a fight with a sibling on the way to school, or who forgot their homework. I make sure to greet each student individually. They know that I'm happy to see them. If they've had a rough start to their day they know that I'm there if they need to chat. I try to help them get their minds ready for the school day. I don't think you can do that without acknowledging other things that might get in the way.

MEA: What's your biggest challenge in the classroom?

Emily: Some students face unbelievable challenges, whether it's something at home, a different learning style or attention issues. I try to level the playing field by giving each student what he or she needs. I value and celebrate differences and talk about that often with my students. They are usually willing to share about their challenges, and when they do we can all support and relate to one another on a deeper level.

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MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars to use at your school, what would you do with it?

Emily: I'd love to discuss service learning with my students and choose different ways to give back. If we had a million dollars at our disposal, I'm sure we could use a large chunk to make a difference in issues that matter to my students. Whether it's buying fabric to create a quilt for kids who need some warmth or donating money to a cause, there's so much we could do. Service learning is a great way to grow empathetic, involved citizens.

Other things: I would make our part-time librarian full-time. We feel her absence on the days she is not in the building. I'd buy iPads and more computers; teaching kids the right way to use technology is so important, and we don't have much access at our school. I'd also provide rich experiences through field trips. A million dollars could really get us to some interesting and distant places!

MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?

Emily: I'd still have to be in a career where I feel like I'm making a difference. Maybe a social worker, or working for a non-profit. But it’s really hard for me to imagine doing anything else.

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MEA: What can our nation do better to encourage young, capable people to consider teaching as a career? How can we motivate new teachers to stay in the profession?

Emily: The salary did not deter me, but I think it deters a lot of people. If teachers were paid more it would send a message that it is in fact important work. (How is educating the youth of America not THE MOST important job?) I also think people are anxious about the weight of standardized testing. This shift towards teaching to the test is intimidating.

I think giving new teachers adequate support will help retain some of the teachers who have fled the profession in the past. That first year is so ridiculously difficult! Mentor programs need to be in place in all schools, and I believe that teachers should be given coverage for their class if they want to observe colleagues. Coaches can also provide help to new educators. It's all about the support.

MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when…"

Emily: …my students are fully engaged and working diligently. When they are compassionate towards one another and are practicing empathy regularly. Then they truly see their full potential. 

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