At the end of September, Dawson County High School teacher Ashley Caray was in the middle of a lesson with the students in her classroom when she turned around to see the superintendent and assistant superintendent, board of education members, high school principal and others standing in the back of the room. With a big smile on her face, Superintendent Nicole LeCave announced to Caray and her students that she had been selected as the district’s official teacher of the year.
Caray, who had already been named as the high school’s teacher of the year, said that she was shocked and overwhelmed to learn that she had also earned the title of the district’s teacher of the year too.
“I was there with my kids and turned around and there were just all these people,” Caray said. “When they went to announce it I was very surprised, very humbled and very honored that my colleagues picked me.”
Caray is the Community Based Instruction (CBI), Community Based Vocational Instruction (CBVI) and Transition Instructor for the high school. She said that, as a teacher in the special education program, being named the district teacher of the year is a win not just personally but for the whole program.
“It takes a village,” Caray said. “It’s the awesome community, it’s the administration, it’s my team here, the general ed teachers that open up their classrooms to our kids so they can have the least restrictive environment — everyone has just been really open to trying to grow this program to just be really competitive with some of the bigger counties that we’re surrounded by.”
Caray said that when she first graduated high school she originally wanted to major in international business, until a family vacation to Florida opened her eyes to a different kind of teaching.
“We took a trip to St. Augustine and I was out shopping with my mom and I saw this teacher with all these kids from the deaf and blind school; I started researching it and Flagler had a deaf and blind school so originally I wanted to go to Flagler,” Caray said. “When we came back here I started volunteering with the special olympics and I just really had a passion for these kids and advocating for them, so I changed my major, graduated from Brenau, got my masters from Central Michigan University and got my specialist from Lincoln Memorial University.”
Caray herself is dyslexic and has reading processing problems, so she said that she understands the struggles of some of her students on a deep, personal level.
“I had to go through reading learning labs over the summer and tutors and everything just to get through high school, so I know some of the challenges these kids face,” Caray said. “I like to get involved with the kids, model for them what needs to be done, and get down there with them, share my story with them about being dyslexic and show them that I make mistakes too so it’s okay to make mistakes; you don't have to be perfect.”
Caray has served as a special education instructor at all grade levels and is in her 27th year of teaching. She came to Dawson County in 2016, when she decided that she wanted to do more in her work with job site training and preparing students to enter the real world after high school.
“I realized I really needed to spread my wings; I wanted to do something more with transition and job sites and I wanted to challenge myself so I came over here to Dawson, fell in love with it, couldn’t wait to get started and here I am,” Caray said. “With everybody’s help we’ve kind of taken the program to the next level.”
In her position, Caray prepares her students for life after high school by helping them find jobs in the community and teaching them skills like budgeting, scheduling appointments and completing medical forms. The goal, she said, is to get the students out in the community and working in whatever way is best for them and their specific needs.
“I tell the kids by the time you get to high school you’ve already learned everything possible you can learn in the classroom, so now our job is to bridge the gap from high school to you going out there in the real world and contributing to your community and being a part of society,” Caray said. “We just try to take the baby steps to get them to be as independent as possible — taking the skills here that we’ve learned over the past years in elementary and middle school and generalizing it to a different area.”
Caray said that her classroom motto is “Why not?”, and that she encourages her students daily to “turn your can'ts into cans and your dreams into plans”.
“I tell them ‘you can do anything you put your mind to; it’s okay to make mistakes and that’s how you grow’,” Caray said. “When they say ‘I don’t think I can do this’, I ask them ‘why not?’ and tell them that you can totally do this. My job is to help them find a job and to help modify that job to make them successful.”
She added that, while she has had offers in the past to be a department chair or other positions other than a teacher, she wouldn’t ever want to leave her students and her classroom.
“I have my specialist degrees in leadership and administration but I can’t leave the kids, I don’t want to leave the classroom,” Caray said.
Caray said that she’s incredibly excited to have been named as the district’s teacher of the year, and that she couldn’t do what she does without the support of her colleagues and school administrators.
“It’s not something you do on your own; you have people to bring you up, keep you going, keep you up when you’re down and vice versa and that’s really what ‘1Dawson, one family, one excellence together’ is about,” Caray said. “It’s all of us; when you have an amazing team and you put the kids and their needs first that’s the best. I’m very thankful, humbled and blessed to be here and to be surrounded by such an awesome community and Dawson family.”