POLAND — Bruce M. Whittier Middle School students filed into the auditorium early Monday for laptop orientation — or so they were told.
“It's great to see you all,” Principal Shawn Vincent said. “We're ready to start our orientation.”
Then he said plans were changing. “We don't need the screen.” The laptop orientation screen lifted. The stage curtain rose. Standing behind the curtain were dozens of smiling people: dignitaries, firefighters, students and family members of teacher Shannon Shanning.
School band members started playing “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
In a jubilant tone, the principal announced, “We're here to celebrate Mrs. Shanning! You're the teacher of the year!”
Shanning put her head in her hands. The audience gave her a standing ovation.
Shanning, 35, is Poland's local-girl-done-good, or better than good. She's the first special education teacher to win the Maine Teacher of the Year.
She's a product of the community. She grew up in Poland, the daughter of Al and Martha Connolly. She graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington. She met and married Harold Shanning in Poland. They have a 5-year-old daughter.
RSU 16 Superintendent Mike Wilhelm put her winning the 2013 Maine Teacher of the Year in perspective. There are 17,621 teachers in Maine. “There's only one teacher of the year,” Wilhelm said.
Maine Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen read what students wrote about her. Shanning is “'kind with words,'” she never gives up on students, she teaches in fun ways. “'Mrs. Shannon is confident that we can do anything, which makes us confident too,'” Bowen read, and “'We think she's the best teacher in the world.'”
Maine Board of Education member Lynda Doyle said when she came to Poland to learn about Shanning, there was emotion when people spoke about her. "Somebody was always tearing up," Doyle said. There's more to Shanning than a good teacher. "She loves you. When we interviewed you, we saw that you loved her, too," she said.
Vincent described Shannon's job requirements, teaching multiple subjects, prepping for classes, attending meetings about students, monitoring their progress with parents.
“What makes her teacher of the year is what she does in addition to her basic job description, and the way she does it,” Vincent said.
If anyone wants to see customized learning in practice, visit her class, he said. She teaches concepts in different ways drawing on real-life lessons in the community, like the “MidKnight Fire Slayers” program. In that program students learn math, science and writing, combined with fire safety and CPR, during weekly visits with rescue and firefighters. The program has been a huge hit, Poland Fire and Rescue Chief Mark Bosse said.
Last year, her students competed in a chicken wing cooking contest with firefighters. The students won. “On the day of the big event the fire and rescue team was overmatched, or should I say 'burnt',” Vincent teased.
In a serious tone, the principal said some of Shanning's students never had positive feelings about school until they got to her class. “School may have always felt hard. Students may have felt like they had no control. Now their learning belongs to them,” the principal said.
Shanning's student achievement data is positive, he said. “Just ask her students. They know exactly where they stand.” Shanning has said she wants her students to each have their “red carpet moment.” Fighting back tears, Vincent paused and said to Shanning, “Your red carpet moment is today.”
Shannon came to the podium, saying she was honored and thanked her family, colleagues, students, firefighters and others in town. “I can't think of a place I would rather be. I love my job so much. I love this community,” she said.
As Maine's Teacher of the Year she'll compete for a National Teacher of the Year contest, go to space camp, meet the president at the White House, and speak at dozens of events sharing how Poland students learn. “I am excited that Poland is going to be on the map,” Shanning said.
One of her former students, Christa Edwards, 15, said Shanning “doesn't just show you how to do something. She sits next to you and shows you step by step. If you still don't get it, she'll repeat it in slower motion.”
Students leave school each day confident, she said. “It makes me feel that I've accomplished something.”