OAKLAND — Two Atwood Primary students escorted their principal, Jennifer McGee, into the gymnasium Tuesday morning for a surprise assembly to celebrate her winning the statewide honor of 2017 Principal of the Year.

McGee was greeted by all of her students, her family, the school’s staff and the district’s administrators. Many were wearing yellow in her honor, said Denice Hatch, a kindergarten teacher at the Atwood school, because McGee is “a ray of sunshine.”

The Maine Principals’ Association, a state nonprofit group that assists top school officials, picked McGee, 53, as its principal of the year for the energy and climate she had brought to the school through her leadership. McGee will travel to Washington, D.C., in October, where she will be honored along with the 49 other 2017 Principals of the Year from each state in the country.

“When you walk into a special place, you know it’s a special place,” said Dick Durost, executive director of the association. “I have to tell you, about 30 seconds into my visit here today, I could tell this was a very special place.”

McGee has been principal of the Atwood school, which serves kindergarten through second-grade students and has a preschool program for 4-year-olds, since 2009. Before that, she was the principal at Belgrade Central School.

Gary Smith, superintendent of Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18, said McGee deserves the association’s award, as she epitomizes the district’s mission to focus on every student at every school, every day.

“She’s a great administrator,” Smith said.

McGee already knew she had won the award and it felt good, she said, because a school principal’s work is never truly done.

“You never have that feeling of spiking a ball over the line,” she said.

When she walked into the surprise assembly Tuesday, that feeling was even more overwhelming, she said, and it was “like my life’s work was right before me.”

“I was overcome with emotion because it’s like validation of my life’s work,” McGee said. “It’s what’s kept me up nights. It’s what I’ve worked on over the weekends. It’s what took me away from spending time with my children.”

During the assembly, the children sang “You Are My Sunshine” to McGee, and both Smith and Durost spoke about why she deserved the award. Hatch, a teacher at the school, also showed a brief video of students explaining why they enjoy having McGee as their principal.

At times, McGee dabbed away tears from at her eyes with a tissue.

“I’m the luckiest principal in the world. I truly am,” she said at the assembly. She thanked her colleagues and Smith “for always being just a phone call away,” as well as the association and her family. Without her mother, who baby-sat her children in the evenings, McGee said, she never would have been able to get her master’s degree.

“This is one of the highlights of our lives, seeing her accept this award,” said Diana Berry, McGee’s mother.

McGee also thanked Paula Callan, principal of Messalonskee High School, who first nominated her for the award.

“She’s just the shining example of what a great educator is,” Callan said about why she nominated McGee. “Her love and compassion for these little ones is contagious.”

McGee said the selection validated what she does, because it was “recognition from the principal at the end of the journey that the beginning of the journey matters.”

McGee lives in Oakland, where she feels as though she’s “made it,” she joked, after growing up in the small towns of Maine and graduating from Carrabec High School in North Anson. She went to the University of Maine at Farmington for her bachelor’s degree and the University of Maine at Orono for her master’s degree.

“I cannot recall a time when I did not want to be a teacher,” McGee said. Even when she was a little girl, she always wanted to play school, she said.

McGee started teaching in 1986. After 14 years in the profession, she went into administration in 2000, first in Fairfield-based School Administrative District 49. She’s worked at RSU 18 since 2006.

She went on to be come a principal after taking on some leadership roles on committees as a teacher and realizing she could influence children’s lives even more as an administrator.

“I thought, if you could impact the thinking of a group of teachers, you could impact even more students,” McGee said.

She also teaches an evening course for future teachers at Thomas College in Waterville.

There are some frustrations that come along with the job, she said. The reality of budget cuts and adapting to decisions made by those outside of schools is difficult, McGee said.

“Continuing to do more and more with less and less is a frustration,” she said. “Everyone who’s involved in education should be a champion for public education.”

Beyond that, though, McGee said she feels as though the Atwood school is her home.

“I can’t think of a time where I wasn’t excited to come to work,” she said. Her goal as a principal is to “find a pathway” so that all students, regardless of their needs, can reach their full potential.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

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Twitter: @madelinestamour