The look on her face said it all.
A Clyde-Savannah special education teacher received the surprise of her life during a school-wide assembly of cheering students, appreciative colleagues and local dignitaries.
Caitlin Garvey, who teaches first-, second- and third-grade special needs students at Clyde-Savannah Elementary School, was stunned earlier this month when she was presented with the prestigious Milken Educator Award, which includes a $25,000 prize.
“I was flooded with emotion,” said Garvey, who started her career as a teaching assistant. “I’m not one to draw attention to myself, so to have so many people, even those I’d never met, arrange such a special event for me was just astounding.”
She was further amazed this week, when the NYS Board of Regents Chancellor Lester Young opened their meeting with a special shout-out to Garvey and hailed the award as the “Oscars of Teaching.”
Garvey is just the eleventh New York teacher to receive the award from the national Milken Family Foundation over the past 35 years. Part of the fun and magic of the award is the way it’s presented — sort of like how the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol suddenly shows up at your door with balloons and roses.
“Caitlin engages students through innovative methods to reach their highest potential, adapts instruction to the needs of every child, and displays exceptional leadership in the classroom, school and district," said Milken Educator Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop, who presented the award along with Alex Trikalinos, an assistant commissioner at the New York State Education Department.
Garvey leads a self-contained class with 12 special needs students, along with five paraprofessionals, using a curriculum she designed with the help of specialists in speech language pathology, assistive technology, autism and more. She creatively uses small group experiential activities, differentiation and technology to take advantage of students’ existing skills and de-emphasize barriers to learning. On average, most of her students go from being able to read a few words, to being able to read several sentences or more at a time.
Garvey also works closely with families and mentors other teachers in the district on differentiation and student engagement strategies.
When Garvey heard her name announced at the assembly, she said she felt a surge of pride — and vindication.
“Early in my career, I faced A LOT of rejection and struggled to find my footing in the field. I graduated at a time when teaching jobs were few and far between and positions were highly competitive,” she said. “As someone with little experience, I was often overlooked; I felt like a failure.”
“One summer, I decided my spirit couldn’t take anymore; I sent out my final round of applications and prepared myself to walk away. For months, no one called, and then in August, I had a voicemail offering me the opportunity to come interview in my current district,” she recalled. “I poured myself into interview prep but also kept my expectations low. And lo and behold, the principal at the time saw something in me that I almost lost. I’ve been working in Clyde-Savannah ever since.”
Like so many educators, Garvey said her journey has been marked by incredible highs and lows — but this award demonstrates how important it is to never give up.
“I had no idea that my work had been profound enough to reach people far beyond my classroom,” Garvey said. “That’s something that every teacher dreams to be true but rarely gets to see confirmed.”