Caitlin Cornwell '06 smiles as she and her teammates prepare for a roller derby bout in Charlotte, NC, on Saturday May 7.

A year after winning the Outstanding First Year Teacher Award for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Caitlin Cornwell ’06 reflects on the challenges and rewards of the profession – and how a newfound passion for roller derby makes her an even better teacher.

In 2009, Caitlin was new to roller derby, the fast-paced, hard-hitting sport played on roller skates. Now, she’s captain of her team.

As with teaching, she’s proven herself early-on to be a leader.

Caitlin, a former Fulbright scholar and currently a high school theatre arts teacher, also teaches mathematics classes. There aren’t many people who could teach such diverse subjects. But Caitlin, who graduated from UNCG with full university honors and a BFA in theatre education, also earned dual licensure in math shortly after graduation. She was told by the department chair that she possessed the maturity and creativity they needed – qualities that no doubt helped make her Teacher of the Year in a school with a reputation for strong academics.

A passion for pedagogy

Caitlin is also respected for her enthusiasm. But her passion also makes her job more challenging. “I run the risk of getting too emotionally wrapped up in the success of my students. I care so much about the ‘Aha moment’ when the information clicks, but there are days when they just don’t seem to care as much about their success as I do.”

Teaching is hard. Young teachers need to know that it’s not all roses and apples on your desk. But it’s important, what we do.

Those are the days when derby plays an important role. Caitlin practices with her team several times a week. “There’s just something about roller derby. It charges your blood. It’s glorious. When I’m not on skates, I miss it. By the end of the day, I’m aching to practice. I love it. I need it.”

She’s modest about her ability. “Honestly, I need roller derby more than it needs me,” she jokes. “But after a 12 or 15 hour work-day, I need that counterculture to keep me balanced.”

It may be indeed be a counterculture for Caitlin, but there is a common denominator here – energy. Caitlin is known to be a teacher who is full of life. She works hard to engage her students in the learning process.

That, and being a part of the Charlotte Roller Girls, stands Caitlin apart. “When kids find out I do roller derby, I’m suddenly five points cooler in their minds.”

Sink or swim

For young teachers just starting out, Caitlin has valuable advice in the form of a metaphor. “For new teachers, it’s very much like you’re surfing. You’ve got days when you’re on top of the wave. There’s sun and it’s wonderful and you feel really confident. Then there are days when you feel taken under, and it’s about getting your head back up.”

How does she feel about her award now that she’s about to finish her second year of teaching? “It’s a double-edged sword to win such an award. I felt that in my second year of teaching, I would inevitably be a better teacher, but the truth is that I’ve just set higher standards for myself now that I’ve had more experience.”

Photography by Chris English, University Relations