Unlocking Students’ Talents 1

Grit and Compassion Lead the Way 
for Award-Winning Teacher

Math teacher Cari Corley wants her Legend High School students to be able to do more than decipher angles or solve an algebra equation. Her goal is to give them the skills to tackle any challenge in life.

“That’s what I’m passionate about: helping students create their own success,” she says.

Corley, who has been teaching for about 15 years, had her own self-discovery about seven years ago, when she felt she wasn’t giving students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School what they needed.

“I realized the teacher I am isn’t the teacher that the students need me to be,” she says. “That’s not okay.”

With the help of her students, she “recrafted” herself. She also started down a path of learning about “grit,” which “is essentially a combination of passion and perseverance” that requires a growth mindset.

“If I can get students engaged in their own growth process, then it doesn’t really matter what challenges we face. And math has plenty,” she says.

“If we can help them know what kind of learners they are, and they’re willing and passionate about growing, that will lead to high achievement. And that’s what is really important – even more than the math.

“Math is the medium,” she continues. “Math gives us the opportunity to run into things we don’t know how to do.”

Also contributing to her teaching style was the development of a business plan for Alta Vida Alpacas, a company run by her 21-year-old, developmentally-disabled son, Peter, and the family’s nonprofit, Alpaca Partners. “Our goal is to help special needs individuals first find community and get safe and then find areas of passion, and help them turn that into a business or a revenue stream,  develop competence.”

In developing that plan, she says they needed to come up with core values.

“The three words that we came up with were compassion, community and competence. As I’ve taken those core values and put them into the classroom, they’ve changed my policies, how I relate, what I expect, all of it.”

The end result is a teacher who absolutely loves what she does, especially when working with her students at Legend, some of who have been identified as “challenged learners.”

“My favorite type of student, whether it be a learning obstacle or whatever it is, are the kiddoes that have a lot of talent … but we’ve just not found the keys that unlock those talents,” she says.

While she enjoys watching her students when they realize they will succeed in a specific endeavor, she is modest about her own success.

After being named the Secondary Educator of the Year during the 2015 Apple Awards, she went out and bought hundreds of apples, so that she could give one to every person who works at Legend, even the custodians.

“It was a little humbling, sitting in a staff meeting with all these incredible teachers, and I’m the one that got this award,” she says. “One of my favorite moments was all of a sudden realizing I had the opportunity not to win an award, but to represent what we do here.

“We all care about kids. We all work our tails off. We’re here to build relationships and to be a family.”