PORTLAND, Maine — Just moments after being named Maine’s 2014 Teacher of the Year and being described by last year’s award winner as “a teacher who never stops teaching,” King Middle School’s Karen MacDonald was already using the honor as a lesson for her students.
After most of the school’s 550 students had cleared out of the cafeteria assembly and gone back to their classrooms, MacDonald spent a few extra moments with her seventh-grade student group and reminded them of the importance of taking risks and being bold.
“We talked at the beginning of this [nomination] process that this was a risk,” she told the students. “This was a lot of work to put in and a lot of time. … Never in a million years would I have pictured myself here, so I hope it’s inspiration to you, that when there’s something that you’d like to do — but you’re not sure — that it’s OK to take a risk and put yourself out there. And if you don’t succeed, that’s OK.”
In MacDonald’s nomination form for the award, she was lauded for her innovative approach and open-mindedness, and described by her principal, Michael McCarthy, as “simply the best educator I have ever known,” one of the words in the packet that stood out most to Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen was “skunkworks.”
In a surprise award ceremony at King Middle School Tuesday morning for MacDonald — called under the guise of being a “Back-to-School” assembly — Bowen said he’d never seen the term in any other nomination package.
Bowen told the cafeteria full of giggling students that although “skunkworks” “doesn’t sound good,” it’s a term that describes a group working together to try new things and break molds.
“Her classroom is a laboratory for innovations and new practices,” Bowen said.
The commissioner also read a letter from Gov. Paul LePage, in which the state’s top elected official said MacDonald “exemplified what it truly means to put children first.”
MacDonald has also impressed officials at a national level, with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan saying after a 2010 visit to the school that her methods are “how kids want to learn,” according to McCarthy’s nomination letter. Now, the 35-year veteran teacher of Portland schools — 24 years of which have come at King — will be able to take her approach to the country’s highest office.
As Maine’s Teacher of the Year, MacDonald will have a chance to meet President Barack Obama at a national ceremony in Arizona and attend NASA’s popular Space Camp in Alabama.
MacDonald, who was joined by her husband, Terry, and daughter, Kellie, in the Portland ceremony, takes the Teacher of the Year crown from 2013 winner Shannon Shanning of Poland’s Bruce M. Whittier Middle School.
Shanning told Tuesday’s assembly that when the finalists for this year’s title were announced in Augusta last month, MacDonald used the opportunity to recruit volunteers for an expeditionary learning project for her students.
“What I saw that day was a teacher who never stops teaching,” Shanning said.
MacDonald said she was “overwhelmed, humbled and honored” to be named Teacher of the Year, and said the ceremony initially took her by surprise, although she started to see clues of the looming announcement.
“I wasn’t expecting it this morning,” she said. “It was supposed to be a seventh grade assembly and when I came down the hallway, I saw the sixth grade classrooms empty, too. When I saw [Assistant Principal Hiram] Sibley in a suit, I thought, ‘Should I be nervous here?’”
Joining Bowen, Shanning and McCarthy at the Tuesday ceremony were, among others, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk, state Senate President Justin Alfond, State Board of Education leaders Nancy Perkins and Peter Geiger, Portland Board of Public Education member Sarah Thompson and Portland Education Association President Kathleen Casasa.