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'Always a way to reach a student'

Debra Calvino photo by El-Wise Noisette

NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira congratulating Debra Calvino on being named 2010 New York State Teacher of the Year by the Board of Regents.

One word helps to explain Debra Calvino’s success in the classroom: persistence. “I will do whatever I need to do” to reach a student, says the veteran educator who teaches math at Valley Central High School in Orange County, N.Y. It’s a subject that challenges many students, and Calvino has become adept at helping her students overcome their math anxiety. The 2010 New York State Teacher of the Year will use any strategy and any skill “to reach into that place where that [math] block occurred and finally prove to the students that they can do it,” she says. “And once they believe it, there’s no stopping them.”

Calvino began her career 30 years ago. Her first job was teaching special education at Valley Central, her alma mater. Nearly three years later, she switched to teaching math (her major in college), and she’s taught the subject ever since. For the last seven years, Calvino, a former math department chair, has served as the math supervisor for the district’s one middle school and its high school, Valley Forge. In that role, she manages curriculum and assessment decisions, oversees the budgets for each math department, and mentors new teachers.

Her true passion though lies in teaching. That’s why Calvino chose it over a job as a junior programmer that IBM offered her many years ago. “I believe—and this is not to be pat—I really believe I was created to be a teacher,” she says. Calvino simply enjoys helping others learn, especially those who require significant support. To that end, she has always taught at least one class to academically struggling students. This year is no different: She teaches four algebra classes, made up of students who either failed a previous math course or failed the state assessment.

Over the years, she has taught students whose math phobia is so great that their stories stick with her. Take Jose, for instance. Calvino recalls that whenever she asked the teenager to tackle any kind of algebra problem, he would say it was too hard, that he couldn’t do it. “I’m gonna die!” he would exclaim. Confused at first, Calvino didn’t know what to make of his remark. Then she started to joke with him. “If you’re going to die, die quietly,” she would dryly say. At this, both student and teacher would laugh and then Calvino would help Jose break down the math problem. During tests, Calvino would sit next to him to keep him calm. To boost his confidence, she would write a “C” in red ink next to each problem he answered correctly. “So many times students get papers filled with red, but it has a negative connotation,” Calvino says. “I would use red in a positive way: to send the message that this is what they could do.” Jose ultimately got the message. For the final exam, he had the confidence to take the test, which he passed, without Calvino sitting next to him.

Melanie Conklin, who graduated from Valley Central in 2001, credits Calvino with inspiring her own career choice. “She was helpful and made me want to become a teacher and help others,” says Conklin, who now teaches math at Valley Central. Conklin recalls that when she was a student Calvino would encourage students who scored 100 on their homework assignments to help classmates who were struggling. Conklin says that opportunity allowed students like herself to teach their peers, an experience she enjoyed enough to want to purse a teaching career.

As a colleague, Conklin says that Calvino is “approachable” and “knowledgeable” and supportive of fellow teachers. She is “somebody you can always go to with any questions,” Conklin says. With Calvino in the department, “you never have to feel alone.”  (Photo by El-Wise Noisette)

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