Raye Anne DeSoto talks about the Tiger Food Bank, which she runs in a room just off her classroom, Thursday at Gardiner Area High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

GARDINER — One day, a student asked Raye Anne DeSoto how many of her students call her “Momma D.”

“Momma D” is a fitting nickname for DeSoto, who in the morning bakes muffins for her students. At lunch time, she makes American chop suey or homemade mac and cheese, just to see students walk into her classroom.

When the student asked her, she had to think back and recall, because in her 20 years of teaching, she had lost count how many students called her the name.

“My daughters are in their mid- to late-20s, and they joked, ‘You’ll never have an empty nest, you have hundreds of students to take care of, they’re just like your kids,'” DeSoto said.

DeSoto’s compassion toward her students and her willingness to “go above and beyond” are among the reasons why she was nominated by Maine School Administrative District 11 parent Kathleen Cutler for Kennebec County’s Teacher of the Year award — and won.

Raye Anne DeSoto, right, chats with a student in her classroom Thursday at Gardiner Area High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

DeSoto spends most of her time at Gardiner Area High School, although she is the coordinator for the Kindergarten through 12th grade REACH Program, which is for the gifted and talented students. At the high school, she teaches several Advanced Placement courses.

“She finds the good and brings it out in every student and makes them believe in themselves,” Cutler said in the nomination.

DeSoto teaches an AP Capstone course, along with AP Research and AP Seminar.

She said the courses teach her students how to research, write and argue a claim, which they then have to defend as if they were receiving their doctorate or master’s degree. DeSoto said the class’s theme revolves around a topic picked by the College Board, the company that puts on the AP courses, and this year’s topic was sports.

One of her students researched how female athletes are treated by the media in comparison to male athletes, which DeSoto said became relevant in current media with the tennis player Naomi Osaka. Her student was excited to see the real-world application of what she researched, as was DeSoto.

“I love those ‘aha’ moments, where it goes beyond what they read in the book, the real world connections,” DeSoto said. “So, that’s important, that’s what you take with you when you go out in the world.”

Raye Anne DeSoto stands in front of what she calls, “the Zen wall” in her classroom Thursday at Gardiner Area High School. DeSoto decorated behind her desk with pictures she’s taken of sharks and other mementos from her marine biology hobby. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

She attended GAHS and grew up in Gardiner, later attending the University of Maine to study English.

DeSoto and her husband moved away to Connecticut for his job and had two daughters. They contemplated their next move, and for a moment, considered living on a sailboat as a family and sailing from port to port.

“We’re pretty adventurous,” DeSoto said of the idea.

The couple decided against it and moved their family back to central Maine to be closer to DeSoto’s family.

Since her move back, she has been with MSAD 11 for around six years, but her involvement in the community looks as if she never left.

DeSoto is the director of the Gardiner Regional Middle School drama program, helps teachers across the district with the REACH Program, and runs the Tiger Food Pantry and Interact Club — which helps run the food pantry and contributes community service in the way a Rotary Club would (DeSoto is a Rotarian). In her time at the school, the number of students involved with the Interact Club jumped from 10 students to around 40.

“When the school called a half day because of the heat, it was also Monday, when my students open the pantry,” DeSoto said. “I told them, if they can get a ride back, they can come, but if not, I’ll be fine to run it.

“Then at 2 p.m., everyone who normally works Monday, eight of them, found a way back, whether they walked or drove, and made a way to be there for families,” she added. “They are my dream team.”

The coronavirus created a “learning curve” for DeSoto, who called herself a “personable teacher” who “loves to see her students face-to-face.” Part of the reason why she bakes and cooks for her students is to have a chance to see them and talk with them outside of an academic setting.

She said some of her classes were in-person or were a hybrid, where some students attended from home. Having the hybrid model made it more difficult to check in with her students, which she would regularly do in the classroom.

“When I could see them, I could tell when they were doing well, or not doing well,” DeSoto said. “When the camera was off, I’m a drama teacher, when their voice changes, change in voice or change in tone, I could decipher if they weren’t OK, and would give them the opportunity to have a conversation with them and say, ‘Let’s talk like we normally do.'”

Despite her involvement and love for teaching, if someone told her when she was her students’ age that she would be a teacher, DeSoto said she wouldn’t have believed it.

“Now I can’t think of doing anything different,” she said.

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