Felicia Casto (CO '16) spends weekdays immersed in math with students and colleagues, and weekends and summers with the cattle and horses on her family's ranch in the mountains: "I have the best of both worlds." She received her Colorado Milken Educator Award at Rim Rock Elementary in Fruita on February 13, 2017.
Milken Educator Awards: How did you end up in education?
Felicia Casto: I like to think that I chose education because of my love for thinking. I did have teachers who inspired me to be more. And being with kids fulfilled my passions.
MEA: Why elementary school?
Felicia: I felt like that's where I could have the most impact. I love the kids' excitement for thinking and learning at the elementary age. I get frustrated when they come to school with such a fixed mindset that they won't even attempt a challenging task.
MEA: What was your first job?
Felicia: My first volunteer position was at church, where I taught four- and five-year-olds. I was told I had a knack for teaching and the kids loved me. In high school I was an instructional assistant with behaviorally challenged kids. From both those experiences I learned very quickly to be consistent yet flexible. That has been a key for me both as a mom and as a teacher.
MEA: Who was your most memorable elementary school teacher?
Felicia: Mrs. Karisney. She made learning fun with lots of hands-on activities. She pushed students and did not rescue them when they were struggling—not sure I enjoyed it then but looking back I realize that it was a huge help.
MEA: What subject did you like (or not)?
Felicia: My favorite subject in school was PE [physical education]! My least favorite in middle and high school was math. I loved math in elementary school because I was super-fast at memorizing facts, but unfortunately that did not help me in middle school when I was asked to apply my knowledge to math situations. I could easily memorize a formula but really had no clue what it meant.
MEA: Tell us about your first class.
Felicia: I worked at a small rural school—very similar to the one-room schoolhouse everyone thinks of. I taught kindergarten, first grade and second grade, and I had 13 students. The most memorable moment for me was seeing the excitement on their faces. My daughter was in kindergarten that year and still remembers how excited the kids were to read.
We did a very involved study of the gingerbread man and the culminating project was baking one, but when we went to get it out of the oven it was gone. He had left clues all around the campus of where he might be!
The hardest thing about my first year of teaching was letting go of the fact that I didn't know everything about every child. I remember struggling with not knowing what a kid truly understood and what I needed to do to move them on. I learned that year how incredibly challenging being a good teacher was going to be.
MEA: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Felicia: I think the students see how much I love my job and how much effort I put into being great at what I do. Parents are more apt to ask questions now that I have been nationally recognized. I actually asked some of my students this question, and here's what they said:
- "It caused me to want to be a teacher even more."
- "It will encourage a lot of kids to become teachers."
- "[Now we know that] we have a really great teacher in this school and she is awesome."
- "It made me want to make our school even better."
- "It made everyone say congratulations to Mrs. Casto, which might get annoying for her because we have a lot of kids." (Never!)
MEA: What do you hope students remember about you?
Felicia: I hope they remember my excitement and love for thinking, especially in math class. And that if you can't make sense of math and draw pictures to support and help your thinking, then something needs to change!
MEA: How do you involve parents and families in your class?
Felicia: I host at least two family math nights a year where we play games and talk about the math their kids are doing. I encourage parents to solve the same tasks their kids are being asked to solve. Some of my students have even brought in real-life math problems from home for everybody to solve.
MEA: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Felicia: It's hard to choose between math and recess. When I can combine them and we find math tasks during recess, I consider the day a success.
MEA: What's the biggest challenge you face in your classroom?
Felicia: I wear so many hats. I get frustrated when I don't have time to meet with teachers and students and get their questions answered.
MEA: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, how would you use it?
Felicia: I would invest in the teachers. There are so many resources available to teachers but unfortunately during the school day there's no time to pursue them. I would find a way to compensate teachers for continuing their education and professional development. I would also invest in more teachers so that our class size was closer to 20 than 30.
MEA: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Felicia: Probably be driving a piece of heavy equipment or working on our family ranch full-time. Most of my family is in the dirt business. That's typically what I do during weekends and summers. But being an educator I have the best of both worlds. I get to spend my weeks working with kids and teachers and my weekends in the mountains.
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?
Felicia: I think as a nation we need to put more money, time and effort into teachers in their first through fifth years. That's when teachers burn out, because they don't have a coach or mentor encouraging and supporting them.
MEA: Finish this sentence: "I know I'm succeeding as an educator when..."
Felicia: ...when kids are excited to see me and ask me what we are going to be working on when they get back to my class.
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