PORTLAND – Karen MacDonald thought something was up even before she saw all of King Middle School’s students and teachers crowded into the cafeteria.

It’s rare at King to have the entire student body crammed into one room, and as she walked past the empty sixth-grade classrooms on her way to the cafeteria, MacDonald wondered if she should be nervous.

Within minutes, the school’s 550 students were on their feet, cheering loudly as MacDonald was named Maine’s 2014 Teacher of the Year. It’s an honor her students and colleagues say is fitting for a teacher who spends all day, every day trying to inspire them to work harder and learn more.

“Never in a million years would I have pictured myself here,” she said.

MacDonald is a 33-year veteran known as an innovative teacher who engages students with hands-on projects. She helped the school transition to an expeditionary learning model, which emphasizes real-world projects and teamwork, and has led school improvement efforts.

It didn’t take long Tuesday morning for MacDonald to use the honor as a teaching moment, telling students after the ceremony that applying for the Teacher of the Year honor was a lot of work and a bit risky, but worth it.

“I hope this is an inspiration to you to take a risk,” she told her students, who wrote letters and spoke to judges in support of her nomination. “I hope you feel you helped me on this journey.”

MacDonald teaches English and language arts to sixth- and seventh-graders at King Middle School, the most ethnically and economically diverse middle school in the state. She was one of the first expeditionary learning teachers when the model was created and, says Principal Michael McCarthy, her classroom continues to be “a laboratory for creating and refining excellent teaching practices ever since.”

“She’s an inspiration to all of us,” said McCarthy, who has worked with MacDonald for all of the 24 years she has been at King Middle School. “She is simply the best teacher we have ever known.”

In the nomination for the award, the school’s nominating committee said MacDonald’s “dedication to teaching every single student is exceptional.”

“She sets every student up for success with a series of appropriate challenges, and then provides them with the guidance and feedback to meet those challenges. There is no wasted time in (MacDonald’s) classroom,” the nominating committee wrote.

A former student, Phoebe Scott, also wrote a letter supporting MacDonald’s nomination. Scott said MacDonald “would be perfect for teacher of the year because it won’t be about herself, in her eyes.”

“Knowing her, it will mean inventing and presenting new ways of teaching children,” Scott wrote.

Education Commissioner Steve Bowen, who announced the award, read aloud a letter from Gov. Paul LePage. In the letter, LePage said MacDonald “exemplified what it means to truly put students first” and is a “true equalizer of students from all walks of life.”

Sophia Nolan and Arzoo Hassanzada, both 12, said after the ceremony that MacDonald always makes class fun and motivates them to become more involved in their own education.

“She’s not the kind of teacher where if you do something wrong she’ll get mad at you. She’ll look at you and say, ‘You can do better,'” Nolan said. “She gives you this motivation and makes you want to work so much harder.”

“You know if you have a problem she’ll be there for you,” Hassanzada said. “She makes you comfortable and the activities get you really attached to learning.”

Last year, MacDonald’s students joined with the city of Portland and the Gulf of Maine Scientific Research Institute to collect data on invasive species. They also wrote a book on Maine’s contribution to the civil rights era. During that project, students interviewed and wrote about Mainers who were involved in the movement. Their work was donated to the African American Special Collection at the University of Southern Maine.

Shannon Shanning, the state’s 2013 Teacher of the Year and a special-education teacher at Whittier Middle School in Poland, said MacDonald will have a busy year ahead of her. After she submits a portfolio to be considered for the national teacher of the year award, MacDonald will attend national education conferences, visit schools, attend space camp in Alabama and meet President Obama.

Shanning said she is confident that MacDonald will be a strong voice for both her students and education, while also continuing to inspire — and teach — those around her.

“Mrs. MacDonald has a true knack for making every moment a teaching moment,” she said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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