ROCKVILLE – Maryland State Department of Education named Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) 2019 Teacher of the Year a finalist for the state’s Teacher of the Year award.
MCPS staff wrote in a news release that the teaching of Hallie Wells Middle School English teacher Madeline Hanington produces results.
“Hanington’s style is dynamic, challenging, innovative and nurturing,” MCPS staff wrote in the news release. “Data demonstrate the effectiveness of her approach. Academic intervention programs she created and implemented increased Maryland state assessment scores by at least five percent.”
A few of Hanington’s fellow teachers and Hallie Wells Middle School Principal Barbara Woodward said after she won the county award in April that they admire the fact that she gets to know the students and the way she connects with them.
“She changes lives in a way that is magical in the classroom,” Woodward said. “She gets kids to believe in themselves before they even know that they are going to be able to learn something. She inspires that not only in the kids but staff and even parents.”
Hallie Wells English teacher Greta Fitch said Hanington’s teaching style is unique because of her “connections with students.”
“The way that she’s able to reach students just goes so far beyond the academic level,” Fitch said.
Hanington is the staff development teacher as well as an English teacher at Hallie Wells Middle School, which opened a few years ago. She has been teaching in MCPS for more than 19 years. Before that, she taught in New York City.
She practices culturally responsive teaching in her classroom because when she was a child and an English-language learner, her teachers did not use that approach. She carries her personal education experience as a student with her into her teaching style.
In one instance of culturally responsive teaching, a former student whom she had taught in New York emailed her and said that the student had fond memories of Hanington picking books to which she could relate so that the student could see herself in the characters in the stories. The former student attributed her doing well in the field of magazine publishing to Hanington’s thoughtful selection of student reading materials. The email moved her to tears.
More recently, Woodward entrusted to Hanington the responsibility of selecting books that she wanted for the curriculum when the school first opened.
Starting this school year, Woodward made Hanington the school’s staff development teacher.
As a staff development teacher, part of her job is to train people how to teach well and give them strategies as well as practices such as culturally responsive teaching.
Hanington said that she tries to learn the students’ personal stories and that she needs to understand students to help them to be ready to learn. Getting to know her pupils helps her in the process of creating academic intervention plans for students, which teachers create to help students improve their grades.
“You’re not going to teach them if they’re not available for learning,” Hanington said. “And so, in order to get them available for learning, you have to understand what they’re thinking, what they’re going through and just getting to know them. And once you get to know them and they trust you, you can get them to learn.”
She told a story about an academic intervention plan for a student who slept in class regularly, which hurt the student’s grades. She sought to connect with her student, finding a commonality between them, before collaborating on a plan to boost his grade.
“He could barely keep his eyes open,” Hanington said of the student.
She tried to figure out how she could help her pupil, starting with learning what she could about him. She observed him during other classes and in the cafeteria during lunch, she looked at his academic record to get some background and try to “figure him out.” She talked with other teachers and staff to try to come up with ideas to help the kid.
The student started visiting her classroom at lunchtime for extra help and to finish work.
Then she started assigning a writing prompt to learn about the student, such as asking about activities during the weekend or about one of their favorite things.
“All those questions work in order to get to know them,” Hanington said. “It’s sneaky that way(…) I want to get to know them, so I pose (questions). And they’re pretty honest.”
Responding to one of the warm-ups, the student wrote about helping at his father’s Chinese restaurant. Another day at lunchtime, Hanington brought up his response to the writing prompt and drew on her own life experience.
She told the student she admired him helping his father and mentioned helping her father at work.
“‘I used to help my dad when he worked at the movie theater part-time. I used to help him (my father) clean the bathrooms.’ I said, ‘I appreciate that you help him.’ (…) I said, ‘I bet your dad really appreciates your help.’”
After that conversation, he “opened up.”
“And as it turns out, he would go to work after school to help them take deliveries, answer the phone, you know, do the cash register because he knows English,” Hanington said. “And it was a Chinese takeout place, and so he wouldn’t get to bed till like one, two in the morning, because he’d have to help clean, to you know close up the shop.”
They worked out that he could take a nap in her classroom at lunchtime if he needed to. He later graduated from high school and was accepted into college on a scholarship.
When it comes to academic improvement plans, her advice to teachers is, “You can’t save every (kid).” Hanington said her academic improvement plans are not always able to help a student boost their grades. She tried to help one of her students, employing many strategies such as giving him tips, but did not get the results she hoped for; the student’s family was going through rough transitions at the time. When he was in high school, she continued to worry about him. He would get into trouble, which she found out because they kept in touch. Eventually, she realized there was nothing else she could try, and so she emotionally let him go, to let him find a solution himself. Years later, he sent her a postcard to say he had joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
State Teacher of the Year requirements differs from the county requirements. For county teacher of the year, people who knew her nominated her, and then several people interviewed her and answered questions. The panelists also observed her teaching in the classroom. For the state teacher of the year application, she answered some essay questions, and MCPS Human Resources Director Lance Dempsey put together with other requested materials in a large binder for her application.
Before the Maryland State Department of Education can present the winner, the finalists must give a five-minute presentation, Hanington said, adding that public speaking makes her anxious. Despite the public speaking and other requirements to enter for the award, she can focus on doing her best because she derives motivation from her students. She also sponsors a lady scholars group at the middle school, which works to inspire girls to reach their potential.
Her students and lady scholars, “they’re so proud of me and so this all makes it worth it because they see me, you know, getting this recognition, and they know I work hard, and so I think it helps them, it motivates them and it inspires them.”
The winner will be announced during an event on Oct. 25.