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2017 Arizona Teacher of the Year says strong connections boost students’ learning


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Michelle Doherty, Arizona Teacher Of The Year 2017, Center, Surrounded By Previous Teachers Of The Year. Photo Courtesy Arizona Educational Foundation

A teacher who advocated for a student with a different learning style. One who advocated for a pregnant high school senior. Another who taught her school was a priority. And another who was the first teacher she’d ever had like her – Hispanic. Michelle Dougherty, who was named Arizona’s Teacher of the Year last month by the Arizona Education Foundation, said without these caring teachers, her life story might have been different.

Today Doherty, a first-grade dual language teacher at Encanto School in central Phoenix’s Osborn Elementary School District, operates from a belief that connecting with students is the key to their learning.

Michelle Doherty, Arizona Teacher of the Year 2017. Photo courtesy Arizona Educational Foundation

Michelle Doherty, Arizona Teacher of the Year 2017. Photo courtesy Arizona Educational Foundation

Adding to her own childhood experiences are lessons she’s learned over her 23-year teaching career about getting to know to know her students and their families, and what their lives are like outside of her classroom.

“Building a sense of trust, especially with the students and families I serve can take some time. I just have to be patient,” said Doherty, who teaches at a low-socioeconomic school. “When it happens, not only do I have a child that I connect with, but I also have a child that will work hard, try new things, help another child who believes in me and trusts what we are doing together matters.”

That strong, deep-rooted connection doesn’t end when the school year ends. Doherty still hears from several students, and she has attended their weddings, quinceañeras, graduations, professional fights in Las Vegas, birthday parties and dinners.

This year, Doherty said she hopes to advocate for literacy, early education and early interventions, particularly for students in lower socioeconomic schools.

After the luncheon, Doherty said she was heading back to school for parent-teacher conferences, and she knew her students would be excited when they heard about the honor.

“They’ll cheer, they’ll be excited, but they’ve always said, ‘Oh, you’re going to win.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I already win because I’m your teacher,’” Doherty said. “They’re going to be overwhelmed. I’m excited, because it’s just not my honor, it’s their honor as well.”

Q: What led you to become a teacher?

A: Being a teacher was something I always wanted to do. When I was a very young child, I used to gather the children in my neighborhood and ask them to play school. I was always the teacher.

I had some teachers who I truly admired for a variety of reasons. Some made me feel as though I could do and be anything, some were always kind to me and my family, and some challenged me in many ways.

Being a native of Phoenix, I had all types of teachers, but I didn’t have my first Hispanic teacher until high school. To be honest, I didn’t realize this until she stood before me. Our lives were so similar – family hardships, family experiences and family culture. This experience made me want to be a teacher more than anything.

I wanted to connect to my students in a way that I didn’t have with teachers growing up – similar life experiences and hardships. This is why I only wanted to teach at a low-socioeconomic school.

Q: How can early literacy help children in low-income families find success at school and throughout life?

A: Early literacy in low-income families is vital. When children from low-income families enter school, most are already at a linguistic disadvantage. They lack linguistic development, early reading practices are not established or sometimes valued and some do not have books in the household.

Research also shows that children who come from low-income families have smaller vocabularies and language and literacy opportunities. This in turn creates an achievement gap that sometimes takes some time to close. This reading readiness and language achievement gap grows (e.g., children who come from low-income families have one-fourth the vocabulary of children from middle class homes).

Early literacy is more than just language and literacy, it can give a child a leg up, support the development of the whole child, and can create a sense of confidence.

Q: What have your students taught you?

A: My students have taught me to be the best teacher I can be.

They have taught me patience.

They have taught me that all students learn at different rates.

They have taught me that all students have a gift to offer – I just need to figure out that gift.

They have taught me there isn’t just one way to teach.

They have taught me the importance of acceptance, and they have taught me the importance of belief.

Q: What are some of the most important issues in education right now, and what should be done about them?

A: Education issues are a hot button. One big one that is affecting Arizona is the teacher shortage.

Why do teachers quit the classroom after five to eight years of teaching? This is a major public education issue that is difficult to answer. This could be due to the lack of respect for teachers, salary motivated, lack of support for teachers, or is reality driven. Addressing this major public issue is important, after all, teachers help create other professions.

As a veteran teacher and someone in the trenches of education, I often hear teachers discuss how they feel there is no respect for our profession. It comes from a parent who is questioning our ability in the classroom. It comes from being second-guessed for the choices we make related to the growth of a child. It comes from being told we have a voice when decisions need to be made related to our classrooms, but in reality, a decision has already been made. It comes from not hearing what we are doing right, but rather what we are doing wrong. I can relate to those feelings because at one time, I too had those feelings.

If teachers choose to leave this profession due to the lack of respect, we need to figure out how to change that feeling. We need to develop a support system that validates new teacher’s feelings and frustrations. This can be done through a mentoring program or one-on-one support.

We need to let new teachers know we’ve all been there, and that it will get better. Teaching takes time to develop. There will be highs and lows. Seasoned teachers need to let the new teachers know to forgive themselves because your first years are a dress rehearsal to your career – the best advice I was ever given.

Q: What else would you like to highlight or mention?

A: It is important to know that everyone has a story to tell. It is important to know and understand that story. Not only will it help you in being a better teacher, but it will also allow you to reflect on your choices and teaching practices.

Be an advocate for your children and their families. Teach families to be an advocate for their children. Teach children the importance of reflection.

My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Sherman, was my advocate. My school wanted to put me in a special reading class during the school day. Mrs. Sherman didn’t think I needed it because she said, “Michelle doesn’t need the special reading class, she just needs to read and practice differently.” After meeting with my parents, getting to know my learning style, and my personality she took time out of her day to help me with my reading. She believed in me, and provided me with the support I needed. Not only did I become a better reader, I gained a sense of confidence.

My seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Cartwright, taught me the importance of balance. Through many conversations, he noticed I liked to be involved in many things in and out of school. Mr. Cartwright often said to me, “it is okay to do lots of things, but in the end, school will be the most important thing.”

In my senior year in high school, I was told I would have to go to a special school for pregnant girls. Yes, I became pregnant my senior year. If I did not have strong-willed parents or an incredible school counselor, Mr. Allegretti, to stand up for me, my life story might have been different.

Arizona Educational Foundation video: 2017 Arizona Teacher of the Year and Ambassadors for Excellence

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