Spotlight: Caitlin Garvey (NY '22)February 3, 2023
Caitlin Garvey (NY ’22) constantly looks for ways to integrate her special education students with the rest of her school: “Incredible things can happen when teachers can move beyond the idea of ‘your kids’ and ‘my kids’ and we can start seeing them as ‘our kids’.” She received New York’s Milken Educator Award at Clyde-Savannah Elementary on November 4, 2022.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?
Caitlin Garvey (NY ’22): I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I never shied away from opportunities to lead others. I also loved how multifaceted teaching was. I remember being in awe of the classroom and all the responsibilities my teachers held. In no other profession could you do an art project, read a book, and write a friendly letter.
Once I started college, it took several semesters before I worked up the courage to commit to education. I really doubted myself. Fortunately, I pushed past my reservations and pursued my dream.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Caitlin: When I accepted my first yearlong position, I was elated. Very quickly, however, the reality of it all set in and I felt incredibly unprepared. I knew how to write a lesson plan and I knew what the latest research said about teaching reading. I knew about the multiple intelligences and fun ways to learn math facts. But putting it all together for the first time was hard. Still, there was no time to panic and I had to hit the ground running.
Right across the hall from my room was another newbie. Over the first few months, we found ourselves reaching out to one another, and we realized the support system we could create. We also happened to live close to one another, so we began to carpool. This solidified one of the most epic teacher friendships on the planet — eight years and counting! I would not be the teacher I am today without her. She reminds me to laugh at myself and that there’s always tomorrow.
MFF: Why did you decide to move into special education?
Caitlin: I think it’s important to challenge myself and find ways to become a more well-rounded educator. Special education can be isolating and limiting but I aim to challenge the status quo. Incredible things can happen when teachers can move beyond the idea of “your kids” and “my kids” and we can start seeing them as “our kids.” Why do we have to be so segregated? How can we break down barriers and create a more cohesive educational experience for all kids? How can we create more effective models of instruction? These are the kinds of questions I push myself to problem-solve.
MFF: What do you like about working with elementary students?
Caitlin: Elementary students have such a zest for life and so much of the world is new to them. I love seeing things through their eyes. It keeps me young at heart, keeps me laughing.
MFF: Your students’ abilities and skill levels vary widely, particularly with communication. How do you create a cohesive learning environment while differentiating for different abilities?
Caitlin: For me, the keys are classroom routines and management, strategic planning, and organization. I start with my students — what are their goals, what are their strengths and abilities, what do I need them to learn? From there, I try to establish common threads — what do most of my students need to know, understand, and be able to do? I try to capitalize on materials that offer multiple levels so I can easily scaffold up or down while still maintaining a cohesive objective.
Likewise, students’ schedules are painstakingly mapped out to maximize instructional time with myself and in the general education setting when appropriate. For much of the day, my room operates on centers-based instruction, which allows students to come and go and pick up right where they left off on their visual task boards. I have coded task bins that are selected to meet the many needs of my students and each child works through the tasks designed for them. It’s this incredible system of adults and students who somehow know exactly where to be and what’s expected at every point of the day. Apart from direct instruction, the class could really run itself.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Caitlin: My dad has always been a role model for me. His work ethic is admirable — he’s this incredible blend of charisma, hard work, and persistence. He’s shown me that nothing is owed to you and anything worth having requires toil. While at times I found his advice frustrating, I realize now that he’s right. You can’t stop at good enough or you’ll never know what else could be, what else you’re capable of.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Caitlin: There are moments in your life where everything stops and you think, “This cannot be real” — this was definitely one of those! I have faced a lot of obstacles over the years, both personally and professionally, and as someone who is hypercritical of herself, I’ve really struggled to make peace with the journey. But when I heard my name, my first thought was, “You weathered every storm so you could be right here today. It was all worth it.” Something was lifted off my shoulders.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Caitlin: I don’t think my students had any idea what had happened. To them, I’m just their teacher, good ol’ Ms. G. And I’m okay with that!
MFF: Any plans for the $25,000?
Caitlin: I see this as an investment in my future. There’s something next for me. I just don’t know what it is yet. This money gives me the flexibility to figure that out. In the meantime, I never have enough laminating sheets — time to hit that “Subscribe and Save” button on Amazon!
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Caitlin: Success is fluid. We find it and just as soon, we feel like we need to go searching for it all over again. For me, I’m never content for long, always wondering what’s next. I drive myself mad but I’m always trying to see how high I can “push my bar.”
I’d like to think I instill this in my students as well. Yes, we celebrate our successes — big, little, and everything in between. But I also encourage them to think: What now, why stop there?
MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?
Caitlin: I hope they remember that learning was fun. I hope they remember to be critical thinkers. I hope they remember to push their boundaries; you don’t have to settle. I hope they remember to think big. I hope they remember their teacher believes in them.
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