As a child, Karen MacDonald would walk down to her mother’s first-grade classroom to visit her at the end of the school day, and she enjoyed seeing the “smiles of appreciation” on all the students’ faces.
She remembers it being a “happy place.”
“I saw the joy teaching provided her, and the difference she made for others,” said MacDonald, a former sixth- and seventh-grade language arts teacher at King Middle School in Portland. “I fell in love with teaching as a young girl.”
Like her mother, a former teacher in Cape Elizabeth, MacDonald aspired to make a difference. As a student, MacDonald would volunteer to work with other students any way she could, and each experience she had confirmed her passion for teaching, she said. In 2014, MacDonald was chosen as Maine Teacher of the Year.
Every year the honor is given to a dedicated educator in Maine who is considered a model of the teaching profession. Like MacDonald, other Maine Teachers of the Year – including this year’s honoree, Jennifer Dorman, a special education teacher in Skowhegan – say there are many reasons they love teaching.
MacDonald began her career in the 1970s at Longfellow Elementary School in Portland as a teaching assistant, during a time when teaching jobs were “hard to come by,” she said. “It was a great experience for me. I learned how schools operate, and how to work collaboratively with my colleagues.”
MacDonald – who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and education from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and a master’s degree in professional teaching from the University of Southern Maine – began working as a special education technician at Longfellow School in 1979.
She also served as the district coordinator for Portland Schools’ first gifted and talented program, Project Exploration.
Before starting at King Middle School in 1989, MacDonald taught fourth- and fifth-graders at the former Baxter Elementary and Nathan Clifford schools in Portland. Her favorite subject to teach has always been language arts.
“I love exposing students to great stories, and helping them develop their own voice through writing,” said MacDonald, who retired in June.
MacDonald also takes delight in the fact that sixth- and seventh-grade students are “thinking more analytically about literature. It is so exciting to watch the ‘aha’ moments as they work to uncover the deeper meanings in a text,” she said.
As a teaching strategist, beginning in 1999, MacDonald helped King Middle School transition to one of the first three Expeditionary Learning models nationwide. According to the Expeditionary Learning website, “Expeditionary Learning is committed to creating classrooms where teachers can fulfill their highest aspirations and where students can achieve more than they think possible.”
One of MacDonald’s proudest moments was in 2010, when she and four of her students attended the National Conference for Expeditionary Learning in Portland, Oregon, where the students gave a presentation about a civil rights expedition to more than 600 educators as part of a language arts project.
“The poise that these students showed, and the professionalism with which they delivered the information to their audience in a 30-minute presentation was beyond anything we could have imagined,” said MacDonald. “When you present students with high expectations and provide them with support to reach those expectations, they can soar.”
MacDonald returned to teaching language arts in 2004 and earned her English Language Learners endorsement through the University of Southern Maine so she could teach English as a second language to the district’s increasing number of foreign students.
Her favorite part about teaching, she said, is that “every day is different.”
And not only do students learn something new every day, teachers also continue to learn from the students throughout their career, MacDonald said.
Teaching is a job that is constantly evolving. Women interested in pursuing the profession must be able to learn continuously, said MacDonald.
“Teaching is an exciting and demanding career,” she said. “The skill sets to be a successful teacher include content knowledge, knowledge of pedagogy (method and practice of teaching), public relations skills, and technology skills.”
Despite the challenges, MacDonald says she loves her work, and is grateful to be recognized as Maine Teacher of the Year.
“I was so proud to represent my school, my district, and all of the public school teachers of Maine,” she said.
Making a difference
Gloria Noyes, principal at the James W. Russell School in Gray – and 2009 Maine Teacher of the Year – says her favorite part of teaching is having the opportunity to make a difference in the students’ lives.
“The children are, of course, always the core of everything we do,” said Noyes, 44, who had her first classroom at 23.
Noyes previously served as the principal of Memorial Elementary School in New Gloucester, a fifth-grade teacher and principal at Fred P. Hall Elementary School in Portland, as well as a fifth-grade teacher at Congin Elementary School in Westbrook, beginning in 1993.
She knew she wanted to be a teacher since the fourth grade at Congin, during a difficult time in her life. Her father died in May 1980, and that June and July, her grandparents died. Also, her mother was going through her second divorce.
Noyes will never forget the compassion that one of her teachers, Roberta Dutton, showed her and the other students. Noyes admires her to this day.
“She went above and beyond the call of duty,” she said. “She made me want to learn, and she made me a better person. I wanted to be just like her.”
Noyes earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Maine at Farmington in 1993 and her master’s degree in literacy education from the University of Southern Maine in 1998.
The connections that Noyes has made with students through the years are also what she loves about teaching, she says. According to Noyes, she enjoys being there for students – to listen and guide them.
What gets her out of bed every morning is “hoping that the children and the staff have a successful day,” she said. “It’s those teachable moments, and the true sense of joy the children bring.”
It’s also the “opportunity to hopefully be a part of making a difference for the entire building,” said Noyes, who is a proponent of “the whole child” approach to teaching.
“You need to make sure they are emotionally in a good place, and that they have all of their physical (health) needs met before they can learn,” Noyes said.
Noyes said she would encourage women to pursue teaching for several reasons, including that “without great teachers, so many other professions wouldn’t be learned. We lay the foundation for all great professions.”
Like any job, it can be challenging, but what’s most rewarding for her is watching students grasp the content she’s teaching.
“It fills your soul,” she said.
Jennifer Dorman, a special education teacher and reading interventionist at Skowhegan Area Middle School, knew she was meant to be a teacher since her first day of kindergarten with Verna Staples.
“I loved my teacher, and I wanted to be her when I grew up,” she said. “I came home from school that day and told my parents at dinner that I finally knew what I wanted to be when I grow up.”
And she hasn’t changed her mind since.
“I always loved school, even if it was challenging,” said Dorman. “I missed it in the summer. If they asked for students to volunteer to tutor ESL students or work with the special education students, I would do it. That was fun to me – and it still is.”
Dorman is approaching her 22nd year of teaching, and through the years, she has taught students with disabilities in reading, writing, spelling and math.
“I’ve taught grades K-8, and I teach 7 and 8 right now, and love that age group,” said Dorman. “I kind of worked my way up through the grades until I found that perfect fit.”
Dorman holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Maine at Farmington and a master’s in education from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.
“I teach special education students, as well as students who are at risk of failing school because of reading,” said Dorman. “It’s definitely rewarding. I can’t think of a job I’d rather be doing.”
Her job is never boring, she says, “because you never know what could happen.”
Watching her students improve their reading skills from one grade to the next motivates Dorman as a teacher. As a result, students become more happy and confident.
“When a struggling student becomes a better reader, they become a better student,” said Dorman, who was also recognized as 2014 Somerset County Teacher of the Year.
Three of Dorman’s seventh-grade students will be transitioning to the general education setting this fall, and three more students who need help in language arts will take their place. In addition to her 90-minute language arts class, Dorman will spend at least 20 minutes working one-on-one with students who need extra instruction.
“A lot of my job is analyzing student performance, their test results, observations, things they tell me,” Dorman said. “I take all of that data and use it to make decisions about the best program for these kids and the best way to instruct them.”
That is how Dorman makes a difference in the students’ lives, she said. Her favorite part about teaching middle-schoolers is that the students “are starting to become more aware of how their behavior and attitude and effort really plays a role in their achievement,” said Dorman.
A proud moment for Dorman was when she and a few other teachers created the intervention wing in the middle school in 2007-2008.
“We built that program from the ground up, and had to do a lot of research on best practice,” Dorman said. “We had to think about the needs of our students and staff, and somehow design a program that would be ultra effective with our most struggling students.”
But the most rewarding aspect of her job, she said, is the relationships she builds with other teachers and her students.
“The kids are what keep me going,” said Dorman. “I love when they come back to visit me four years later and tell me how they are doing. I find them comical, sweet, and very endearing.”