On a Thursday morning, Nichole Carder braced herself for the first-period rush. It’s another day at Burnham Elementary School in Cicero, and Carder was looking forward to spending another day with her fourth-graders.
As the countdown to the 8:30 a.m. bell began, Carder peeked outside her classroom door. It snowed earlier that day, and the roads were icy and slippery. She expected some of her students to be running a little late. She waited patiently in the hallway, checking the clock every now and then. A warm smile followed after every “good morning,” as hurried little bodies carrying large backpacks came into full view, revealing familiar blushed faces.
First things first, Carder announced. Coats needed to be stored away, breakfast needed to be finished and last night’s homework needed to be placed in the bins. As students settled in, Carder quickly reminded them of their upcoming math test. And in no time, she broke her students into smaller groups to practice adding and subtracting mixed fractions.
“We all think differently. We all do things differently,” Carder said, encouraging her students to work the problems out together and remember there’s more than one way to solve something.
That’s the thing about Carder, Principal Jennifer Evans and co-teacher Kathleen Boyle said. As close colleagues, the two have watched Carder over the years work to tailor her lesson plans to meet her students’ academic and personal needs. They took notes of her passion, dedication and selflessness, which is why they weren’t surprised that Carder was named one of 30 teaching finalists for the 2020 Golden Apple Award for Excellence.
According to the 2018-19 Illinois Report Card, 97% of Burnham’s students come from low-income families. Nearly 96% of the Cicero-based school’s students identify as Hispanic, and 57% of them are English learners, the report stated.
“She wants to reach all of them and help all of them succeed,” Evans said of Carder and her goal as a teacher.
“She’s really tough on herself,” Evans added. “If she can’t reach a child right away, she is really tough on herself.”
Boyle jumped in and said Carder hunts for creative ways to help others learn. One of the most important things Carder does is maps out where her students are when it comes to learning new material. Carder knows when “the kids are falling behind,” and she catches them right at the start, Boyle said.
And during these times, Boyle noted that Carder looks “at herself first” and asks “what else can I do to support them?” From there, Carder makes her move. Sometimes, she records her lessons, so her students can play the videos at home. Other times, she goes one-on-one with them. Through it all, she pushes, motivates and uplifts them.
Creating a positive environment at school, Carder said, is not only important, but comes from a personal place.
“Learning was a challenge as a child,” Carder recalled. “I didn’t always grasp concepts right away. It was difficult for me. I would often be pulled or had teachers pushed into my room to assist me in reading.”
Even as an adult, Carder has held onto those childhood memories. She still remembers those teachers, some of whom were at Cossitt Avenue School in her hometown of La Grange. They stood by her and taught her not only to be strong but confident, said Carder, who is now a mother and resides in Downers Grove.
Throughout Carder’s classroom, there are posters pasted over the walls. One of them reads, “It’s not ‘I can’t.’ It’s ‘I can keep trying.’” Another says, “It’s not ‘I don’t know.’ It’s ‘I’ll give it a go.’” At the foot of her whiteboard, there’s a colorful hand-painted chair with a slogan, “Learning is sweet.” It’s a playful nod to Carder’s love of desserts – namely cupcakes – and her love of education.
These positive affirmations offer a visual for Carder’s students, most of whom will go on to become the first in their family to graduate, while others will discover their capabilities.
“Every child can learn,” Carder said. “They can do it. It’s just they need that teacher or that tool to help them get there. And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the inspiration for everyone that you can be and do whatever you want to do.”