Teacher of the Year Diana Callope says teaching is about ‘making connections’

By Christina Brey

“I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. Teaching is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”

SONY DSCListen to this American Education Week message from Diana Callope:
[audio: http://weac.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/AEW.mp3]

Visit the WEAC American Education Week resource page at weac.org/aew.

For 2015 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year Diana Callope, dreams of teaching began in the second grade. As a teacher for 23 years, she’s followed her vision straight to the top of her profession and is now proud to represent the state’s teachers on a national platform.

A middle school math teacher, she has a serious expression that’s quick to turn to a smile after some one-on-one help for a tough pre-algebra problem. Her brown eyes and raised eyebrows are well-practiced for waiting patiently for someone… anyone… to take a crack at answering a question on the Promethean Board. She just belongs in the classroom.

Sure, she has other interests like architecture (she designed her family’s house on graph paper), and thinks about opening a bakery someday – but nothing comes close to teaching. “I’ve never felt pulled anywhere else,” she said.

Rooted in Childhood

Her pull to math stems from the teachers she’s had throughout her childhood. She recalls a third grade teacher who used differentiation to reach students — before differentiation was mainstream.

Her first taste of teaching came in the fourth grade, after her math teacher realized student Callope already knew how to do long division and asked her to model it to the class. “That stuck in my head,” Callope said.

Committed to Whitewater

Whitewater Middle School, housing sixth, seventh and eighth grades, is the only teaching environment Callope knows. She teaches mostly eighth graders now, but is skilled in reaching students at all levels of achievement during those awkward preteen years.

Callope, who grew up in Pennsylvania, said consistency and stability are especially crucial in our schools. “I had the same teacher in seventh, eighth and ninth grades for pre-algebra, algebra and geometry, which is ironic because that’s what I teach today,” she said. “Mrs. Clark was the most incredible teacher I had. She cared.”

She’s quick to point out that seventh grade pre-algebra was also where she met her husband.

“We send Mrs. Clark Christmas cards every year, and I sent her a special letter after being named Teacher of the Year to let her know,” Callope said. “I was not sure I ever expressed my gratitude for the difference she’s made in my life, and needed to do that.”

Moving to Wisconsin with her family from Pennsylvania to start college, she landed at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and, one year later, married her childhood sweetheart from seventh grade pre-algebra. She took three years off of school while he finished his degree, and the pair started their family. Then, it was back to UW-Whitewater to finish her teaching degree.

She completed her field study with Whitewater teacher Bill Kuster as a student and has taught within the same school with him ever since landing her first job.

Making Connections

“The most important element to teaching is making connections,” Callope said. “What gives students the momentum to continue learning is that they know their teacher cares about helping them succeed. It means more to them when they know it matters to you.”

“It’s not something you learn,” she said. “It’s something you have.  A teacher can be the best in her content area, but for a student, that’s not what sticks in their mind when it comes to a great teacher. A great teacher cares, and students know it.”

Wisconsin Teacher of the Year

“This has been a humbling experience, to be singled out when I know there are thousands and thousands of incredible teachers out there,” she said. “It has revitalized me to have the validation that what I do is worthy and good. I feel lifted up again.”

Callope, like all teachers, places more value on the impact she’s had on students’ lives than awards or honors. Near the top of her most memorable moments are visits from former students who needed to tell her she made a difference in their lives.  A child she championed who “didn’t really fit in” during the middle school years returned a decade later to tell her he was successful and happy. “He wanted me to know how much he appreciated someone standing up for him,” she recounted.

Another student who wouldn’t listen to her counsel and dropped out of school came back years later to tell her that he was finally going to get his GED. “He dropped everything in his arms when he saw me and gave me a big hug,” she said. “He told me, ‘I wanted you to know I’m doing it now.'”

“You see, sometimes they just come back and let me know how they’re doing,” she continued. “It’s not always a big story. Sometimes it’s just stopping in to say hi. But it’s all the same.”

Being a Teacher Today

“One of the challenges of being a teacher today is we’re expected to do more and more and more with less and less and less,” Callope said. “School districts get less funding for a variety of reasons, there are more things to do, and the other things that are already expected of teachers haven’t gone away.”

“I come to school earlier. I stay later,” she explained. “I take more work home – you have to in order to stay caught up and to do your job well.”

Callope expressed concern that Wisconsin is on the edge of a teacher shortage at the same time the state has experienced a massive loss of experience as longtime educators left the classroom over the past couple of years. Along with that, there’s a new type of teacher in Wisconsin. Those generally with 10 years or less experience are becoming “transient,” traveling from district to district for improved pay, collaboration and respect. The days of a one-district teacher in Wisconsin – the educator who teaches generations of family members – is on the way out.

“My hope is that we come to look at public education as not the sole responsibility of teachers,” Callope said, noting she’ll place much emphasis this year on collaboration with parents. She’ll also be a voice for common sense when it comes to implementing a wide range of new initiatives facing Wisconsin teachers. “I will urge administrators and school boards to be sensitive to scheduling so they allow teachers a chance to collaborate and get their work done.”

Callope said it’s essential that Wisconsin be pro-active to improving public schools and not reactive. “There needs to be a sense of reasonableness,” Callope explained. “There are good ideas, but to be accomplished and done well they must be given time and resources. The alternative is mediocrity. I fear we’re teetering on this.

“In the end, teachers care about their students and need the resources to inspire them to learn. I really think it’s important to try to motivate students to make them want to be here, to make them want to be successful in whatever realm that might be. That’s what I do. If that makes me exceptional, then I’m proud of that. This is just what I do, and how I do it, and I’ll keep going.”

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