GCU is the glue for the inseparable ‘Drs. McCabe’
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
Crystal and Mike McCabe – or Drs. McCabe – can remember their many graduations by labor pains.
Son Gavin, 13, was born 10 days after Crystal’s Grand Canyon University graduation for a master’s degree in special education. Noah, 10, “our second master’s baby,” she said, was born shortly after they simultaneously earned master’s degrees in professional counseling.
“You want to get another degree?” Crystal soon asked her husband.
“Yeah, sure,” he said.
Two doctorates at GCU followed, this time without labor and delivery, but almost as painful.
Now in 2021, this figuratively inseparable married couple became literally inseparable, when Mike joined Crystal as Online Full-Time Faculty for GCU’s College of Education.
“We all say at GCU that we bleed purple. They really bleed purple,” said Dr. Sheila Damiani, Faculty Chair for Online Full-Time Faculty. “They are so engaged with GCU.”
Crystal got free men’s basketball tickets the year she started working at GCU in 2013, when the children were ages 5 and 2. They’ve rarely missed a game since, even if the tickets aren’t free anymore.
The family of four, plus Crystal’s mom, Arlene, and grandmother, Shirley, Mike’s mom, Fran, and a family friend, make up a block of loyal season-ticket holders who travel to Las Vegas for conference tournaments and mark the growth of their children by photographs next to mascot Thunder.
“My grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and while we lose a little of her every day, she still gets excited about basketball,” Crystal said. “She knows how to put her Lopes up. That’s one of things she can still remember.”
The McCabes are more than fans. They are academic players at GCU with widely respected scholarship and expertise in training future educators. Their deep knowledge of online education became a vital source for both GCU professors and other educators across the country when the pandemic thrust them into remote teaching.
The McCabes recently co-authored a chapter of a textbook with Associate Professor Kimber Underdown, “Handbook of Research on Future of Work and Education.”
At COE’s presentation for college leadership last month, Damiani said that “we dedicated a slide to Crystal for her sheer number for presentations and papers during COVID.”
But it’s the day in, day out, lifelong dedication to students that is displayed every day as they teach classes from their home in the Valley, Mike in his office and Crystal in hers, while tossing in laundry on breaks.
“They strive to do better every day. I see it in the reviews of their classes,” Damiani said. “They want to see students do the best they can.”
When they hired Mike at GCU before fall semester, she said it was like having “a second Crystal, a good person with a good heart.”
Far be it from GCU to keep them apart.
They’ve rarely been apart since meeting at a fraternity-sorority mixer, a mud football game, at Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania. She graduated in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and he earned a degree in elementary education in 2004. They were married in 2005, a year later moving to Arizona.
They both were hired by the Cartwright Elementary School District, working in different buildings for three years before Crystal moved to the middle school.
“Separation anxiety,” Mike said.
While Crystal moved on to work at GCU in 2013 and Mike stayed in secondary education, they plowed forward on their graduate studies together, then doctorates, before joining forces again.
They always had a heart for helping students who needed a special touch in the classroom. Mike’s interest grew from a niece who has special needs. And Crystal’s interest in behavioral issues among students “were always a puzzle I wanted to solve. Some need is not being met and they are communicating it – and that is what the behavior is trying to do,” she said.
Crystal was the first to go to college in her family. Her late father had a ninth-grade education and her mother worked at home in Youngstown, Ohio, while Mike grew up in the woods of Pennsylvania, where talking to his best friend from the school bus required a long-distance phone call.
But degree after degree, their children don’t even realize some people don’t go to college, Crystal said. “My kids think there is no other option.”
The children saw Drs. McCabe with a thirst for scholarship. Both earned doctorates at GCU in General Psychology with an Emphasis in Industrial and Organizational Psychology.
Mike’s dissertation was about school counselor burnout, the reasons for it and what to do about it. He faced it himself after transitioning from the classroom to a single school counselor serving 1,300 students in Maryvale. Added responsibilities such as lunch and hall duty left his students’ calls for support unanswered at the end of the day, and he came home stressed.
“I told him you can go greet people at Walmart, but I don’t think you can do this job any longer,” Crystal said.
So Mike joined GCU as instructional assistant and quickly was hired for a job in curriculum in 2018 before landing his full-time teaching gig.
Crystal already had been firmly established at GCU, teaching online and occasionally ground classes while establishing an expertise that led her across the country to teach others. She became COE’s only Online Full-Time Faculty with a full professor title.
While preparing for a professional development for a school district in South Dakota last year, Crystal and Associate Professor Dr. Lynn Basko stayed up late the night before in their hotel to add online elements of instruction that had been so useful in their career. Little did they know what would happen the very next day: The school’s principal announced that all teachers would go online at the beginning of the pandemic.
“It was a God thing,” Crystal said.
While at the airport, waiting to fly home, she heard the news that GCU’s instruction for ground students would go online.
Her expertise was in high demand during the pandemic. She shared ideas that were honored in 2020 with the Shauna Schullo Award for Best Distance Teaching Practices, along with Dr. Sonya Berges.
“I need students to know I am not a robot. The relationships are the most important thing to me. I tell my students you have to start there,” Crystal said. “I love that quote, ‘A student doesn’t care how much you know until they know you care.’ I have lived by that.”
The Drs. McCabe both begin their classes sharing personal stories or prayers. They also bring in their knowledge of behavior and psychology to their immense academic knowledge of teacher education.
“It creates community,” Mike said.
“This isn’t going away,” Crystal added about online instruction. “As we are preparing new teachers, they need to have that flexibility to go online or hybrid at any point. So you need strategies to be effective in any one of them.”
For now, they are done with degree-gathering. That doesn’t mean they don’t have the itch, often trading ideas for future research.
“That’s what we talked about, doing some research together,” Mike said.
“We might put in for a presentation together,” Crystal added.
They remain joined at the Wi-Fi hip –at the same University where they were educated, where the kids know every basketball player’s name – teaching for the same department in the same house, finishing each other’s thoughts.
People always ask them how they can spend so much time together. But Crystal said it has been that way from the beginning, working at the same schools, carpooling and now trading off tasks at home with dinner and laundry between classes. “We really are best friends.”
“We haven’t tired of each other yet,” Mike added.
“And we’re coming up on 20 years,” said Crystal.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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