NEWBURGH—Inspired by an aunt who taught school, Newburgh’s Dana McDonough grew up in a tradition of teaching. That inspiration came to fruition recently as McDonough was named the New York State 2016 Teacher of the Year.
Newburgh born-and-bred, McDonough has been teaching for 22 years, mostly at the Fostertown Etc Magnet School, where she now teaches second grade and as a child attended elementary school.
In a Sept. 17 press release Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents Merryl Tisch said, “Dana McDonough encourages children to recognize and take ownership of their own path of learning in and out of the classroom. She works with the whole community around a child, realizing that learning doesn’t begin and end in the classroom. She gives her students the tools they need to be lifelong learners.”
McDonough said the recognition will “give me an opportunity to be a voice for all the teachers across New York state.” The district’s website says “the distinction of New York State Teacher of the Year is awarded to celebrate exceptionally skilled and passionate educators.”
As an example of McDonough’s dedication, Principal Maritza Ramos related how the teacher hired an English tutor for a student who spoke only Italian. “That student is fluent in both Italian and English and is in the fifth grade.”
Ramos nominated McDonough and said the award had to go to her: “Dana McDonough is the epitome of what a teacher should be. She is dedicated, loving, conscientious, and diligent. It’s all about the students. I could not be more proud to have her receive this honor and I congratulate her on behalf of the Fostertown ETC Magnet School family.”
McDonough pointed to support from colleagues and the administration, and Ramos agreed: “Our teachers are the best.”
A Safe Place to Learn
During a story about Johnny Appleseed, students were asked to place Post-It notes on a Schema whiteboard about what they knew about the legendary American. Some felt safe enough to write they didn’t know anything about the character.
“It takes the onus off, but they are still able to contribute,” McDonough said. She wants children to feel that what they say is important.
McDonough wants the classroom to be a safe place to learn, a place of acceptance. “I think what makes a child successful is to know that the teacher believes that all children can succeed. They [the students] don’t put limitations on what they can do.”
She wants her students to leave with the feeling they are prepared for what is ahead academically. “I just cannot tell you how this feels to me when a child leaves to know that they feel successful.”
McDonough says that kids have changed a lot in the years she been teaching. She says they “are more empowered to have a voice.” There is more engagement between teachers and students and students among each other.
The students are learning how to communicate and are sharing ideas starting in kindergarten, McDonough said. She said that teachers in her school support a culture that makes it safe for a student to share.
Dealing With Disappointment
Along with the successes come some disappointments. McDonough processes the disappointments in two steps—first within herself then with her colleagues in school. She thinks about what didn’t work as a source of self-reflection, “then when I can verbalize it, I get amazing support from colleagues and the administration.”
One downside to her work is not being able to give children everything they need. “You’re teaching to a group of children, but then there are going to be those children that you may not reach that day.” She reassesses what happened then considers how to reach them the next day.
She instructs based on each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Instead of giving instruction to her entire class of 25, McDonough will place them in groups.
“You try to pre-assess, then break apart the children so you see the needs of children,” she said. “If somebody needs individual instruction, they are going to get that as well. You don’t try to think of the whole group of 25. I see what their needs are and work in small pockets.”
The students in her class are links to their parents and the wider community. Parents will ask their youngsters what they learned that day and McDonough promises each student they will be smarter leaving school that day than when they came in.
“The best part of my job is getting the opportunity to make connections with my students and that also leads connections to the family, and then to the community,” McDonough said.
She calls teaching a privilege. She is not only educating the child, she says. The learning extends to the family and in turn extends into the community.
She wants parents to know they are a part of each school day their child attends. “I try to bring the parents in as much as I can because I want them to know that we are all in this together.”
An Inspiring Aunt
McDonough said one summer when she was a child she helped her aunt prepare her classroom. “Her hands were full with all the materials she was bringing into the classroom. She gave me the key, so I opened the door and when I went in, it was a bare room.” This gave her a chance to see what actually goes into preparing for the coming school year.
She said students may think everything magically appears. “I got to see how the room transformed itself before the students actually entered. She [her aunt] just made such a lasting impression on me that it’s all I ever wanted to do. I almost feel like she gave me a key to a secret garden that you got a chance to see everything that goes into teaching.” That same aunt also inspired two of McDonough’s sisters to teach.
When asked why teaching is important to her, McDonough said it’s important “to have a piece of what’s going forward into the future. Just to know that you are a part of that educational path in their educational journey is just something you can’t even measure.”
McDonough recalls one piece of sage advice given by that aunt: “The students may never remember everything you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel.”
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