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By Donna St. George,
Nancy Shay has been an English teacher for more than 30 years, and the principal at her Maryland high school describes her simply: There’s no student she can’t teach, no adult she can’t inspire.
“It’s this equal combination of deep content knowledge and a keen sense of who people are and what drives them and how to reach them,” says Damon Monteleone, principal of Richard Montgomery High in Rockville, Md.
Shay was recently tapped as Montgomery County’s 2017-18 Teacher of the Year. Chosen from three finalists, she is now in the running for the state title, competing against winners in 23 other school systems.
“It’s just amazing honor,” Shay said. “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers in Montgomery County who are equally deserving.”
Shay, 54, has had a long career at Richard Montgomery High, where she has worked 23 years, headed the English department for a dozen years and lately teaches both high achievers and students who are less academically motivated but who she says are “just as bright and creative and can be just as interested if you reach them the right way.”
“I love being in the classroom,” she said in an interview this week. “Every day is different. Even if you’ve taught a book many, many years in a row, each time you teach it, a student will reveal something about the text that maybe you haven’t noticed before or will bring a perspective that’s completely fresh.”
School officials credit Shay for elevating the work of other teachers by helping them use data analysis to improve instruction and sharing best practices. She has worked to help spur a teacher-driven movement to improve critical thinking across the curriculum. A longtime teacher in International Baccalaureate courses, she recently began working as a trainer nationally.
At Richard Montgomery she launched a project to spark schoolwide conversations about race and culture called “Rich Talks,” loosely based on “TED Talks,” and co-leads an after-school homework club, giving students a place to work on assignments, get help and build relationships with peers and teachers.
She has spent a career around teenagers — and likes it.
“Teenagers are fun to be around,” she said. “They are energetic, they are creative, they are funny. They are looking for direction and inspiration, and sometimes they’re just looking for someone to talk to.”
She says she especially enjoys teaching works of literature that get students talking about issues like sexism or racism. Among her favorites are Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
The mother of two sons, Shay lives within walking distance of Richard Montgomery, where one of her children is a 10th-grader. The other will be a ninth-grader next year. It was a deliberate choice to live in the community, she said.
“I wanted to see my sons grow up like so many of the students that I taught,” she said.
A 1981 graduate of Springbrook High School, Shay grew up in Silver Spring and earned a bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University in 1985. She went on to earn two master’s degrees, one at University of Virginia in English education and another at University of Maryland in English.
Monteleone, the principal, told school officials in a letter that Shay works with the energy of a rookie and the wisdom of a sage.
“She’s the kind of teacher I always wanted to be,” he said. “She’s the kind of teacher you want your own kids to have.”
Other finalists for county teacher of the year were Melissa Segal, fourth-grade team leader at Luxmanor Elementary School in Rockville, and Cherin Hershkowitz, a math content specialist at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown. Teachers become finalists in Montgomery by winning a master teacher award from the Marian Greenblatt Education Fund.
The top honor is decided by a panel including educators, a school board member and a member of the Greenblatt family.
The recognition comes with prizes: Finalists receive $2,000 from the Greenblatt fund and another monetary prize from Montgomery County Business Rountable for Education.