Written By Lisa Breslin, Photos by: Walter Calahan
Carroll County’s Teacher of the Year, Laura Doolan, graduated magna cum laude with a degree in English from James Madison University in 1992, and received a masters in secondary English curriculum and instruction in 2003 from The University of Virginia. She is currently completing her administrative certification at McDaniel College.
In addition to teaching, Doolan’s activities at Westminster High School have included yearbook sponsor, class sponsor, graduation coordinator, AP cohort chair, chair of the school’s Multicultural Committee, and liaison for Education That Is Multicultural. She is also a member of the School Improvement Team and founded Stand Up! – a group that works to recognize and celebrate diversity and inclusion at the school.
Describe the moment you learned you were Teacher of the Year.
I was so shocked. I was convinced that it was not me, that it was actually going to be my colleague, Thom McHugh, whom I admire. In fact, I turned to congratulate him when they called my name. I was speechless. The day of the interview I had the flu. I could not imagine securing the coveted spot. Speechless shock gave way to being overwhelmed. My email inbox blew up as news traveled. Now I’m excited about the opportunity to represent other teachers. This is so humbling.
What are some of the perks of being Teacher of the Year?
Maryland does it right. TOYs (that’s what we are called) are treated really well. There are 24 of us and we were honored at a luncheon in May. There are activities throughout the summer – a cruise to St. Michaels in July, a leadership retreat at Smith Island, honors at an Orioles game and a Ravens game. This is so cool. At a Black Tie Gala on October 11, seven of us will be recognized as finalists and one will be named the state’s Teacher of the Year.
What is your advice to teachers who strive to be honored as Teacher of the Year?
I would encourage new teachers to find themselves in the classroom. Teaching is overwhelming when you are new; it can be overwhelming even when you teach for 21 years. You have to know who you are in the classroom. For seasoned teachers, I’d say invest in the school, in the students’ environment outside the classroom. Teach beyond the classroom, the assignment. Help change the climate in the building. Constantly ask, “How can I make a difference, an impact?”
What is your advice to students?
Own it. Your education is your future. Explore. Want to be better, smarter, more skilled, rather than embracing complacency. Really want to be intellectually better and take advantage of the education that unfolds all day. It’s free. It’s thrilling
What is your advice to parents of high school students?
Empower your children to be independent and advocate for themselves. Your children need to be academically and emotionally independent.
What is your advice to your colleagues?
Find a way to always love teaching, no matter how difficult it gets. Find something you like in every student and let him or her know what it is. Respect is not automatic; even as adults, we have to earn it. To earn respect, develop relationships with students or your classrooms won’t open up successfully.
What are three adjectives that students would use to describe your teaching style?
Accepting, fair, smart. It is really affirming to hear how kind I am, but it is also rewarding to know that students appreciate the fact that my classroom inspires intellectual discourse, too.
You graduated from Westminster High School in 1988. What are some of the benefits of teaching in the school from which you graduated?
When I came back to WHS, I noticed two areas that I was eager to enhance: the social and academic climates. I knew we needed to do a better job of celebrating academic rigor and success. We all wanted students to want to do more to be accepted at their dream schools. With regard to the social climate, I was concerned about the number of students who were not accepting of people different from themselves, which affects learning and classroom discussion.
Now, what are the changes in the academic climate?
We have doubled the number of students taking AP tests and the number of students enrolled in them. We offer classes in almost every class offered by the College Board, and if students want to take a class that is not offered, like Japanese or microeconomics, we let them take them online. Now, there is a great energy in AP classrooms. Each year we also have Academic Spirit Week to celebrate academic successes.
What changes have you helped usher into the social climate?
There has been a climate shift in the building. It feels safer and students know they can be who they are. In 2009, 25 percent of the students agreed with the statement that students with differences are treated with respect. This year, 74 percent agreed. We started the momentum in Spring 2007. Change takes time.
What are some of your most memorable moments as a teacher?
Some of those moments were actually after class, during conversations with students, after the school year or their tenure at high school. How can you teach students if you do not know them? It is during those conversations that I sometimes discover the impressions or impact I have on students and vice versa. Specifically, my memorable moment is most definitely a Unity Day Assembly at the high school. The purpose of the assembly was to raise awareness about some tough issues and the effects of those conditions at the school. Some tough topics unfolded: students talked about racism, homophobia and anti-semitism. The impact of that powerful hour, and then responses from students, parents and colleagues to that day were the highlight of my career.
What is your Achilles Heel?
If I have a bad day it is always linked to grownups, never to students. With students, I can always make things work, but this is not always the case with parents and colleagues.
How do you wind down during your spare time?
I spend time with my son, Max. Right now we are reading the Harry Potter series out loud together. I also like to do projects around the house. And my guilty pleasure is the show Scandal.
What are some of your long-term goals?
I love teaching, so I hope to always teach. I’d be honored to teach teachers how to teach. I also love curriculum development, helping the county and the state transition to the rigorous new Common Core standards.