Spotlight: Candice Harrington (CA '19)February 19, 2020
Math teacher Candice Harrington (CA ’19) loves watching the changes in her students as they morph from scared, “spongy” ninth-graders to confident, opinionated, funny seniors: “Not a day goes by that I don’t laugh out loud.” She won her California Milken Educator Award at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo on February 12, 2020.
Milken Family Foundation: Most of your students probably won’t go on to careers in math. Why is math an important subject for every high schooler?
Candice Harrington (CA ’19): An easy answer to that is that math forces students to use a part of their brain that doesn’t readily get exercised. But beyond that, math gets a bad rap, especially because it’s socially acceptable to be “bad” at it. No one thinks twice when they hear someone say that they’ve never been “good” at math, but if someone said, “I’ve never been good at reading,” there would definitely be some sort of intervention.
Math helps us make sense of our world and is quite beautiful. Unfortunately, math has historically been taught in a sort of lifeless, mechanical way that keeps students from seeing how perfect and beautiful is it.
MFF: What do you like about high school students?
Candice: They are crazy and amazing and SO resilient. They are the reason I enjoy going to work every day. I love that as freshmen they are so scared and spongy and ready to please, and then, in what feels like a blink of an eye, they are seniors who are confident, funny, and opinionated. I’ve had students who have overcome so many obstacles and I am very inspired by them. Not a day goes by that I don’t laugh out loud because of something my students say or do. I feel so lucky to get to spend my time at work with them.
MFF: How do you motivate your students to do well on the AP exam?
Candice: A five is the highest score students can earn on an AP exam, and we do a lot to prepare. We post pictures in the hallways of each student who earns a five on their final holding a big number 5 (it’s a cake tin). To encourage the kids and hopefully lower their anxiety on test day, I’ll make something for them to take into the testing room with them. I’ve made pins and necklaces, all with a “5” theme. Many of my former students have told me that they still have theirs, years later.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Candice: I was working as a tutor and instructional aide at Saddleback Community College, and so many times my students would say something like, “That’s not the way my high school math teacher taught me to do it.” I began to realize what an incredible impact high school teachers have not only on students’ abilities, but on their confidence with math. I decided to go back to school to earn my credential and the rest, I suppose, is history!
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Candice: I was hired as an intern, just starting the credential program while concurrently teaching high school math with an emergency credential. I was terrified because I had never set foot in a classroom. I didn’t tell the students that I had never taught before. Honestly, that whole year was a blur. I was taking classes at Cal State Fullerton, teaching full time, and completing my teaching performance assessments in between making daily lesson plans and grading. I had just gotten married the previous spring. I think I saw my husband twice the entire school year.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Candice: My parents, for sure. My father reached retirement age and then decided to become a professor. He started a second career in education. He always found “teachable moments” while I was growing up. I look back on our conversations when I was a child and realize now that he was teaching me higher-level mathematics and life lessons without my even knowing it. My mother has a very strong work ethic and always told me that if you’re going to do anything, do it well. This is something I definitely have kept in mind in all I do.
My choir teacher in high school, Mr. Raymond Woods, was also a very strong role model for me. In hindsight I realize that the strong relationships he built with his students made us want to be our best for him. I hope that my own students feel the same way Mr. Woods made us feel.
I had Lawrence Perez for calculus at Saddleback College and later ended up working with him on a few projects. I remember sitting in his office one day talking about whether or not I should pursue a career in math education. “Candice, I get paid to talk to people about math all day,” he said. “What could be better than that?” That really stuck with me. He was completely right, by the way—nothing is better!
I am so lucky to be surrounded by strong role models on a daily basis. Dr. Cherie Ichinose, a professor at Cal State Fullerton, is forever my cheerleader and encourages even the most insane ideas I come up with for teaching a lesson. Dina Kubba, my colleague at Capo Valley High School, constantly challenges me to improve as a teacher and is a sounding board for my new ideas. Our choir teacher Erin Girard reminds me that we are nothing if we don’t build strong relationships with each other. Drama teacher Emily Tucker teaches me that hard work pays off. English teacher Heather Cintas reminds me that our students are individuals who need us more than we sometimes realize.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Candice: There was very little information given about the assembly so we all (the faculty and students) kind of just showed up without much expectation. I told the students on my newspaper staff to cover the story. I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen so I put a lot of photographers on the floor and even took a camera myself so I could try to get some shots in. I was concerned about making sure my kids were allowed on the floor to shoot the event.
I was completely blindsided when they called my name. A lot of the girls who volunteered to participate in the “how much money” portion of the reveal were with me less than an hour before in calculus class and my first thought was, “I can’t believe they didn’t tell me this was going to happen!” Of course, I found out later that they had no idea either.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Candice: A lot of former students reached out to congratulate me and tell me how they felt when they were in my class. To hear that I’m still considered their favorite teacher, even years later, is such a great feeling. It’s one thing to hear from a fellow teacher or community member that I’m making an impact on kids, but to hear it from the kids themselves is so powerful.
MFF: Any plans for the $25,000?
Candice: I’m not sure yet. We try to go on family vacations a few times a year to reconnect with each other, so it will probably go towards that.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Candice: I feel most successful when my students achieve something they didn’t think they could achieve. I hope my students feel successful when they see growth in their learning. So many times students want to see a perfect final product before they celebrate. I try to remind them that it’s the process more than the product that should be celebrated.
MFF: What do you hope your students remember from their time with you?
Candice: I hope my students remember being happy and challenged. I hope they look back on our class and remember the silly stories we shared and the times they pushed themselves and were successful. I hope they remember feeling safe and encouraged.
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