Absegami High School junior Shiv Patel may be flying through his AP statistics class now, but it was only a few short years ago that he found himself struggling to earn passing marks in algebra II.
Patel's teacher, Stephanie Caruso, wouldn't let the then-freshman fail. She would spend extra time with him in and after school, ensuring he became comfortable with the material.
"After a while, she kept on teaching, I was kind of trying to learn, and because of her teaching I got A's the whole rest of the marking period," Patel said. "That really stuck with me."
Story's like Patel's are common among Caruso's students, leaving few surprised that the teacher was named 2013 Teacher of the Year at Absegami.
Despite her popularity among her students and her peers, Caruso said receiving the award came as a shock.
"It was very overwhelming to begin with, because I don't think of me as doing anything spectacular," Caruso said. "Everyone sent me well-wishes and were like, 'It's so deserved.' Just to have my peers think that I deserve it ... made me speechless. It's great."
As the daughter and granddaughter of teachers, Caruso has the trade in her blood. Still, she took the roundabout path to the job, initially pursing an engineering degree at Northern Arizona University after graduating from high school.
Midway through her second year at NAU, Caruso realized engineering was a poor fit.
"That just wasn't the field," said Caruso. "I didn't want to sit in a cubicle. I wanted to make more of an impact on the world."
Caruso began teaching in 1995 and has been at Absegami since 2000, becoming a valuable member of the teaching staff in the more than a decade she's spent there.
Principal Jeri-Lynn Gatto is among Caruso's biggest supporters, saying she's as much a benefit to her co-workers as she is to her students. Caruso has been at the forefront of using technology to enhance the curriculum, Gatto said, and has helped her fellow teachers do the same.
"The most valuable teacher is the one who is the teacher/ leader," Gatto said. "They understand how to work with high school students at a different level, but ... at the same time, they see their peers as almost their classmates."
Patel, who has Caruso for AP statistics, said he was excited when he found he would again be in her class. Classmate Alex Pak has had Caruso for three classes now, saying she's one of the school's most supportive teachers.
Last year, he had her for AP Calculus AB. He recalls the struggles his class went through in grasping the material - and Caruso's patience in making sure they did. This year, he's with another teacher in calculus BC, but credits Caruso's teaching as the foundation of his success.
When Pak heard on the announcements in mid-December that Caruso was named Teacher of the Year, he, and many others she has taught over the years, had one thought: It's about time.
"I was like, kind of, 'Why didn't it happen sooner?'" Pak said. "I wasn't surprised at all when the announcements went off and said she's a good teacher. I agreed with everything they said. It made sense."
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