Q&A with Michelle Doherty, Arizona’s 2017 Teacher of the Year

Encanto School first-grade teacher Michelle Doherty was named Teacher of the Year by the Arizona Educational Foundation. Photo by Rick D'Elia.
Encanto School first-grade teacher Michelle Doherty was named Teacher of the Year by the Arizona Educational Foundation. Photo by Rick D’Elia.

Michelle Doherty is in her 22nd year of teaching at Encanto School in Phoenix’s Osborn Elementary School District. In November, she was named 2017 Teacher of the Year by the Arizona Educational Foundation.

This first-grade teacher believes all children can learn and that outstanding teaching can be measured by inclusivity and attention to all students. We recently asked her via email why she’s so passionate about education, what she remembers about her favorite teacher and what Arizona educators need to succeed.

As Teacher of the Year, Doherty gets a $15,000 cash award, professional training in public speaking and a full scholarship toward an advanced degree at Argosy University in north-central Phoenix. She will compete for the title of National Teacher of the Year and attend Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.

What made you want to become a teacher? I can honestly say I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. My parents often share stories about me gathering the students in the neighborhood at the age of 4  ­— I was always the teacher. I do believe teaching is something I was (meant) to do. I love the daily challenges — not knowing what to expect, even if you’ve planned for the week. I love the look a child gives you when he or she has figured out how to read. I love when former students come back to visit me after five, 10, 15 or 20 years to say “Thank you!” I can’t imagine doing anything else. Teachers help create presidents, doctors, lawyers, professional athletes, entrepreneurs, teachers, etc. What we do matters!

Is there a teacher who inspired you as a child? Mrs. Sherman — my third-grade teacher. She was the first teacher who not only appreciated the gifts each and every one of us had to offer, she was also respectful and welcoming to my parents.  My parents were involved parents but sometimes felt uncomfortable in the school setting.  Mrs. Sherman broke down that barrier. I saw it especially in my mom. I was so excited to see that she saw the same exact (qualities) I saw in Mrs. Sherman, who was kindhearted, caring, loving, positive and warm. This made me want to work especially hard for her! These are all attributes I have carried over into my classroom. I saw how those attributes impacted not only me but my family as well. I try to make every child in my classroom, every child I interact with, or every family member or adult (know they are) someone who matters and is important!

What are the important attributes of a good teacher? A teacher stands out when he or she has a passion for what they’re doing. Knowing their choices, knowing their content and knowing their students in and out of the classroom will impact the life of a child. Being willing to reflect on the craft of teaching during good and difficult times allows a teacher to improve his or her skill sets, which improves student growth. When a teacher is able to reach this point in his or her career, a cognitive shift occurs, and one’s best teaching begins to happen.

What’s the biggest challenge teachers face today? Funding. Yes, we have made some gains related to funding, but increasing funding could impact classroom size and teacher-student ratios, which might improve student behavior, student engagement, student growth and student programs (before and after school).

What’s the biggest challenge students face today? During the past eight to 10 years, I’ve seen a shift. I think it’s great when my students are involved in activities outside the classroom. But I’ve noticed when some of my students are involved in too many activities, it can have a negative impact on their academics. When I see this happening, I inform my families. By all means, I’m not trying to tell them how to “parent,” but I’m simply letting them know to try to find a nice balance. I often find myself sharing my experiences as a parent who tried to find the right balance.

Are advances in technology a positive thing for children? Most of the advances in the tech world have been a positive thing. Trying to find that right balance in the classroom is important. I use technology every day in my classroom, but I also provide several opportunities to get my students to interact with each other. My students are extremely resourceful!  When we can’t find the information we need in the classroom, my students like to get information outside the classroom and bring that information back to share. When one student does it, other students begin to also do it. Not only does this teach my students to become fact finders, it also teaches them to share this information with others. Yes, my first-graders do this! As they like to say, “Mrs. Doherty, let’s just Google it!” I enjoy seeing my students work together on our Chromebooks or in the computer lab to locate information on our projects.

What’s the best thing parents can do for their children as far as academics go? The best thing a parent can do is to be an active participant. Don’t forget: You were your child’s first teacher, so it’s vital to get to know your child’s teacher and school.  Teachers love to see familiar faces at school! Ask questions, especially when there’s a concern. Attend your child’s parent-teacher conferences. This is an opportune time to have a one-on-one conversation without interruptions about your child. You’ll find out how your child is doing academically and socially and how to support the overall development of your child. See what resources are available to your child (such as after-school programs, sports programs or art programs). Encourage your child to read, both during the school year and during the summer! Creating reading habits not only will support your child’s overall growth, it will also prevent reading loss, especially during the summer months.

What one thing about education in Arizona would you like to see changed? Trust the teachers in our school system. Know that we want what’s best for our students. Know that we will not only challenge our students but challenge ourselves as well. Ask our opinion on what changes need to be made, listen to what we have to say and find a way to support or meet us halfway.