GUILFORD, Maine — From a pool of 300 nominations to 16 county winners who were narrowed down to eight semifinalists and three finalists, Piscataquis Community High School English teacher Joseph Hennessey was named the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year on Friday by Maine Department of Education Commissioner Robert G. Hasson Jr. during an assembly in the gym.
With the entire student body, grades 9-12, gathered, Hennessey — who learned he would receive the award earlier in the week — walked in to a standing ovation and took a seat next to the podium.
A graduate of the University of Colorado, Hennessey began his teaching career in 2012 and has held positions as both an English teacher and a teacher for at-risk youth. He specializes in English literature and composition, and has taught speech and debate. In his position at PCHS, where he has been for four years, Hennessey has implemented a college prep, literature-based interdisciplinary course that focuses on students’ interests and aims to prepare them for life after graduation.
PCHS Principal John Keane, who nominated Hennessey earlier in the year, said the students and staff are the Pirates and a gathering of Pirates is called a muster “and this is a muster that will not soon be forgotten.” The principal continued, “We are here to witness a truly historic moment right here in little Guilford, Maine, and little Piscataqus Community High School, and something that may never happen again.”
SAD 4 Superintendent Kelly McFadyen told the audience Hennessey “has the ability to connect with students at a level that gives them hope and aspirations for the future.”
Hasson said the interview process for selecting the teacher of the year asked Hennessey’s students to briefly describe him. The responses included “brilliant,” “cool,” “humble,” “funny,” “dedicated,” “presidential,” “inspirational,” “he gave me Shakespeare” and “he is my role model.”
As the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year, Hennessey will travel throughout the state and country to collaborate with others to support efforts to prepare all students for college, work and civic life. He is Maine’s representative in the National Teacher of the Year program, which includes a national forum with other winners, a week at a NASA Space Camp and a visit to the White House.
Kaitlin Young of the SeDoMoCha School in Dover-Foxcroft, the 2018 Teacher of the Year, said she was involved in the interview process to determine this year’s recipient. “We loved learning about the qualities that make him a great educator,” Young said.
She said an underlying theme of Hennessey’s teaching is acting for the betterment of the group rather than the individual. “He is invested in the success of each student in this community,” Young said. “Mr. Hennessey let me tell you this community, this county and this state is equally as proud of you as you are of them.”
“He inspires everyone to think at a higher level and that makes him a difference-maker,” Young said.” As a student told us, ‘Mr. Hennessey is willing to learn from you,’ and that is what he will be taking and moving forward.”
Several groups of students presented Hennessey an array of customized gifts. The items included a traffic cone decorated to resemble a giraffe for a custom parking space, a framed certificate and a titanium coffee mug signed by the student council.
“It’s more of a trophy,” Student Council Vice President Ethan Chadwick said. “We know you like to drink coffee out of a mason jar. You’re kind of famous for it.”
Hennessey’s colleagues gave him a pair of signed ties in the school’s blue and gold colors, as those present learned he always wears a tie.
“I have been in education for 34 years, and Mr. Hennessey is the most talented teacher I have ever met,” Keane said. Keane said students coming back after their first semester in college will remark how college English classes are a breeze after having had Hennessey.
Keane said that Hennessey is a skier and on the slopes he is as efficient with his movements as he is off the mountain. The principal said an airplane carry-on bag would be an ideal gift for Hennessey.
Stepping to the podium, Hennessey thanked everyone for being there. “This process began last February when I was notified of my nomination for the Piscataquis County Teacher of the Year, which was humbling in itself,” he said. “There are many talented people working very hard in this part of the state who never received that recognition, and there was much for me to process as a result.
“By the time I was selected as the 2018 Piscataquis County Teacher of the Year I had written four essays expounding the virtues of my colleagues, the commitment of our community to its young people, and the tremendous efforts of my students to better themselves through close writing and critical thinking.
“I had also solicited numerous letters of recommendation from colleagues, community members and students on my behalf. All of which further introduced the selection committee to what makes our community strong in the face of often adverse circumstances. Life in rural America can be hard, but evidently you are all people who choose to rise to those challenges as they come.”
Hennessey said as a semifinalist, “I had offered the committee a window into my classroom where your efforts were on display and I acted as a guide. It was nothing more or less than what we undertake every day and every class period across every subject, and as a result of that window I was able to give a presentation at the University of Maine which discussed chronic absenteeism and highlighted some of the programs this school offers to try address that issue.
“Whether it is offering after-school RTI or giving students rides home, partnering with Tri-County Technical Center to help students position themselves for career success, or implementing a student success team or academic council, my message was the adults here are committed to your individual and collective success. Apparently the selection committee was moved by our situation.
“By the time I was selected as a finalist for the Maine Teacher of the Year, the selection committee wanted to visit our school to better understand what it is about this community that places someone like me in a position to succeed. Furthermore I interviewed with various stakeholders at the department of education to express my views on education, my philosophical tenets, and my personal and professional commitments, all of which are informed by working with all of you every day. We live and we learn together.
“Today after all of the reading and the writing, the speaking, and the reflecting, I find myself named as the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year as an English literature teacher from Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford, Maine. It is an honor that I will cherish for the rest of my career and beyond. But I cannot overemphasize that I am in this position of distinction because of this community. Thus I think the question of what makes this community special is an ongoing point of reflection. What does this recognition mean for us now, and what does it mean for the future?
“Over the coming year I will have the ability to share with others what we have to offer and vice-versa. So what are the things that make us most proud; what barriers to access and success frustrate us the most; and how is it that people coming from six different towns representing a physical area bigger than downtown Portland are able to come together to create a community where everyone is welcome, supported, and feels as though their opinions and actions matter? Those are some of the tasks that we have before us, and I am honored and humbled to have this opportunity to articulate to others through this platform.
“In closing I would like to thank all of you, my colleagues, community members, the selection committee and most of all the students for taking a chance on someone from away. Though you had every right to be skeptical of me because I am a person from a different part of the country, instead you chose to welcome me, my monotone voice, my limited facial expressions, my scribbled handwriting and my dry sense of humor into your community with open arms. I am very glad that you did.”
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