Fifth grade teacher establishes lasting connections with students

After earning a degree in criminal justice and taking a non-education job, Michelle Caroccia realized her true calling.

"I had a good job coming out of college but I just wasn't doing something I loved," recalled Caroccia, who earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in criminal justice at Cal State University, Fullerton.

During that time, her sister-in-law had earned her teaching credential.

"I loved her stories," Caroccia said. "I realized that I shouldn't have ever considered anything else other than teaching."

"I quit my job, went back to school, started subbing, got hired as a teaching intern and haven't looked back." She earned a teaching credential and a Master's Degree in Educational Leadership and Administrative Credential from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.

Now a fifth grade teacher at Doña Merced Elementary in Rancho Cucamonga, Caroccia thrives on keeping students engaged in the lessons supplementing them with storytelling or just plain fun.

"There is so much to learn in one school year," she said.

As an elementary school teacher, she covers a wide range of subjects - from social studies to physical education, math to science and language to fine arts.

"There are times we can combine the curriculum to get more bang for our buck, but at other times you need to focus on a specific subject and teach," she explained. "I love to be creative and come up with silly dances, fun songs, or whatever it takes to make learning fun."

She mentioned that some of the concepts can be very challenging, "but what a great reward you get when you see the light bulbs go on for the kids."

Born in Ft. Worth, Texas, Caroccia moved to California in second grade.

"Talk about understanding how it feels to be a new kid," she recalled. "I can really relate and empathize with the new kids, because that was me."

She wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember because she loved school, learning and helping her teachers. Today, she believes teaching goes beyond the curriculum.

"It's about making a difference in the lives of the kids I teach," Caroccia emphasized. "I want them all to feel successful in whatever they strive to do whether it is learning math facts to working on a large project. A smile that comes across a child's face when they make a connection or understand something new is priceless."

Her connection with kids and families is also a priority.

"They're not just gone from me when they leave fifth grade," she said. "I go to their hockey games in Fresno, and things like that. The kids feel safe and comfortable - they know they can make mistakes, and that's okay. That's my trick."

Caroccia's excellent work was recently recognized when she received the 2012-13 Teacher of the Year in the Central School District.

"There are lots of things I am proud of. However, it's not the awards I have received," she said.

"I'm most proud of the kids who have come through my classroom door and done amazing things. I take pride in the kids making the most of their own lives. I also take pride in making lifelong connections with the kids and their families. I am lucky to have had amazing kids' families in my class, and I can't wait to see what the future holds."

At this point, Caroccia's main goal is to get through the Common Core transition to ensure her students are prepared.

"The field of education is evolving," she said. "Teaching is a challenging job but the kids make the job worthwhile."

-Alicia Doyle, Brand Publishing Writer

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