“It’s almost like an alien traveling from outer space and you have to show them how to do everything,” said kindergarten teacher Dara Callaway.
That is how the East Millsboro Elementary School Teacher of the Year for 2018 likes to describe the transition her students go through from the beginning of their kindergarten year to the end.
“At the beginning of the school year, it feels like you have so far to go,” Callaway said. “But to take them from basically a blank slate to being able to read and write and have number sense and add and subtract and compare numbers — it’s really amazing.”
Callaway is in her third year teaching kindergarten at East Millsboro. Before coming to the Indian River School District, she taught in Worcester County, Md., schools for seven years. In Worcester, she taught third grade, both general education and special education; she also taught in the district’s gifted program, as well as serving as an instructional coach for teachers.
She made the move to the IRSD because, she said, “I have always liked this district. Everything is about the individual child.”
Calloway said she was also thinking about where she wanted her own children to attend school; she now has a 6-year-old son going into first grade at East Millsboro, as well as a 1-year-old daughter.
“Everything is about the individual child” in Indian River schools, Callaway said. For her own children, she said, “I really want a place that balances high expectations and high-quality instruction with a sense of caring and compassion for kids. I feel like this district tries to balance both very well. The individual child is never forgotten about.”
When Callaway came to East Millsboro, she said, “I was a little bit nervous, because I had never taught such a young age group. But I think that the really awesome thing about teaching kindergarten is that you get to see so much growth in a year. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, because you literally are responsible for not only their entrance into school and how they perceive school, but you’re also responsible for teaching them how to read. That’s a pretty big deal.”
Callaway teaches in an inclusion classroom, in which special-education students make up about 40 percent of her 18 students. She has a full-time paraprofessional and, this year, for the first time, an intern.
“That was a great experience,” Callaway said of her intern, a Wilmington University student. “It really benefitted the kids a lot, and it was really awesome to learn from someone who is a little bit younger and tech-savvy,” she said.
Having the two aides in her classroom allowed Callaway to meet the varied needs of her students, she said.
“Every child has the same goal, essentially, but the way that they get there is very different.”
Although Callaway said some opponents of Common Core, which is the standard used by the Indian River School District, feel it sets standards that are too high, she feels differently.
“You can look at it as we’re expecting too much of them,” she said. “Or, you can look at it as, ‘Wow, look at everything they’re able to learn at such a young age that we never knew before.’ Yes, you’re holding them to a higher expectation, but they can do it,” Callaway said, referring to all of her students, including those in special education.
“Every child is perfectly able. They’re very able. I see it every day,” she said.
“I’m very high-energy, and that’s why I love kindergarten so much,” Callaway said. “It is high-energy. It’s very intense. It’s a lot of change and movement going on. It’s doing something for 10 minutes, and then changing it and doing something else for 10 minutes. But that is part of the beauty of teaching these kids, how fun it is,” she said.
Callaway said she relishes the challenge of using multiple learning strategies at any given time in her classroom.
“I feel like, personally, one of my strengths is knowing how to manage a lot going on at one time,” she said. “Speaking honestly, that’s probably why they gave me the class that I have. I feel like that’s one thing that I do pretty well.”
“It’s structured chaos,” she added. “That’s the beauty of it, though. It’s the best; it really is the best.”
Callaway has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware, with dual certification in general and special education. She also has a master’s degree in educational leadership. While she said she would like to pursue that end of the education career spectrum at some point, she plans to wait till her children are a bit older. Plus, she said, “I want to have a good balance of different experiences before I pursue that.”
When Callaway had to choose a “platform” once she was selected as East Millsboro’s teacher of the year, she didn’t have to ponder what to pick.
“What I’m noticing is — depending on what a child has done and experienced and been exposed to before school directly impacts their readiness for school,” she said. Minority and low-income children, in particular, are misrepresented in special education, Callaway said, when the issue is not learning disabilities but lack of early learning opportunities.
“So, I have a classroom of kids, some of which are fully ready for kindergarten because they’ve already had a curriculum and been to a day school, learned to work within centers. And I have some kids whose families just weren’t aware of what is expected in school in this day and time,” she said.
“Maybe they stayed home with a grandparent and they didn’t do that much over the summer. That’s OK,” Callaway said, “but what ends up happening is that a lot of those kids that end up coming in not ready” are in certain minority groups and are also from low-income families.
“What ends up happening,” Callaway said, “is that the school system — and really this is not just an issue here; this is really a national problem — is that we’re giving these students individual education plans and we’re putting them in special education,” she said. “Which, you would think, ‘Well, what’s the problem with that, because they’re getting extra help?’ But the research shows that they never really ‘exit’ from special education,” she said.
“And what happens is we enable them more,” Callaway continued. “And our standards are lowered for these kids. And I think, if I could change the world, in education, the one thing I would do is I would make preschool mandatory and the resources would be given for every single child. I feel like it’s unfair to have the education bar set ‘here’ when not every family is aware or able to provide these resources to their child to make them ready for school.
“The research shows if they start behind, they stay behind. That’s really what I see and what I’d like to change. I feel like we need to work with legislators and a lot of people outside of this district if we really want to make a change and make it impactful.
“If we can fix that problem and get all of these kids coming to school ready, you’re going to see a lot of problems fixed as they get older. But until we fix the problem where they start, it’s not going to get better. It’s a domino-effect,” she said.