March 2016 Issue
April 09, 2016

Teacher of the Year's safe, welcoming environment helps students reach their full potential

Author: By Leslie Duncan Fottrell
teacher of the year

If Dana McDonough wants her second-grade classroom in Fostertown ETC Magnet School to feel like home, it may be because, to her, it is home. The 2016 New York State Teacher of the Year has been teaching here for 23 years. She is a Fostertown and Newburgh Enlarged City School District alumna. Her mother, Mary Jane D'Elicio, is one of her regular classroom volunteers.

"Dana has an open door policy," says Newburgh Teachers' Association President Stacy Moran. Parents feel welcome and are involved in her classroom. "And it benefits the students," says Moran.

Today, McDonough and her mother are preparing for the class reading groups session. D'Elicio helps one group focus on comprehension, while McDonough works at another table with two groups, a pair of students in each.

"Two of the students need to work on alphabetizing and the other two on contractions," McDonough explains.

This movement between whole group lessons, small group and individual instruction, and McDonough's continual assessment helps her give each student exactly what he or she needs to succeed.

"She's always had all this amazing energy," says D'Elicio of her daughter, the eldest of five children. "She has the gift to know what a person needs."

McDonough assesses her students weekly and uses the evaluation to drive instruction. She also is a big believer in multi-modal learning and presents concepts in ways that visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners all benefit.

"The classroom environment is such an important component of the learning process," says NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. "Creating a safe and welcoming environment for students, their parents and the community is one of the reasons Dana is such a successful teacher."

Addressing the social and emotional component of education is an important part of McDonough's tenets: "When students come into my class they need to know it is a safe environment," she says.

Fostertown school's anti-bullying program is called Olweus, after Dan Olweus, Ph.D. of Norway, who is considered a pioneer in bullying research. The program is rotated into the schedule. "Every six days classroom teachers meet with our students for a half hour and address a variety of important issues," says McDonough.

This month the topic is fairness, and the students learn the tricky concept that fair doesn't always mean equal. McDonough holds up a laminated sign: "Fair isn't everyone getting the same thing. Fair is everyone getting what they need in order to be successful."

Student-led learning is another hallmark of McDonough's classroom, "I try to involve them as much as I can in their own educational path so they know their expectations and the goals that we set together," she says.

It is a role the young students take seriously. They seem so poised and in charge of their educational process. Second-grader Sarah leads a portion of a math lesson using the overhead projector and calls on fellow students with a gentle raise of her eyebrow and a sage nod of her head. Another student, Morell, holds up a base 10 block. "These blocks help us learn math," he says, explaining that sometimes it is easier to do math if you can use an object to work with the numbers on a page.

Then there's the lucky boy, enthroned in McDonough's chair, scepter in hand, bejeweled crown on head, and clad in an ermine-collared, red velvet cape. He regally reads his story to the students sitting on the rug at his feet.

It's hard to remember the students are only in second grade until they smile sans two front teeth, or when one walks to McDonough and, in almost an elaborate bow, soundlessly indicates that a shoe needs lacing.

The students, the lessons, the preparation, not to mention teacher of the year duties, require a lot of focus, yet McDonough is passionate about professional development and makes time for it.

She eagerly took on student teacher Laura Mowat in her classroom this year. In fact, McDonough has had a student teacher nearly every semester since she became tenured.

"I think I have had more than 20 student teachers," she says. "They bring so much to the classroom." McDonough is also the teacher mentor to Jessica Bell, her permanent substitute this year, and says helping new teachers and "opening your classroom" is the best way to build the teaching profession.

McDonough, an active union member and former building delegate, encourages new teachers to get involved in the local union to see and experience the benefits. "When I address pre-service teachers I tell them to put their feet in the pool of unionism," she says. "We all need to work together in the interest of our children."

McDonough was 8 years old when she helped her aunt set up a classroom. It was a magical experience and a watershed moment. "That's when I knew I wanted to be a teacher," she says.

But McDonough had to wait. First came responsibilities as a military spouse to her husband, Emmett, who served in the U.S. Army for five years, much of the time overseas, after graduating from West Point. When their two daughters were in school, McDonough went back to college. "I couldn't do this without the support of my family," she says.

McDonough continues to seek out professional development, because doing so, she says, has enhanced her ability to meet her students' needs. "And my children are my true professional development."

The desire to mentor both student teachers and new teachers is not hard to understand. "I had a wonderful student teacher experience myself and I want to ensure others do, too. I want to pay it forward."