Tammy Ranger: 2017 Maine Teacher of the Year reflects on earning master’s degree from UMaine
When she was looking for graduate programs in literacy education, Tammy Ranger knew the University of Maine had a reputation for having an outstanding program. Nearly 10 years after earning her Master of Education degree from UMaine, Ranger is the 2017 Maine Teacher of the Year, and she credits her time at the university for no small part of her success.
“When I started my master’s program, one of my professional goals was to work primarily with students requiring extra support in areas of literacy,” Ranger says. “The literacy specialist program at UMaine was instrumental in helping me achieve this goal, and I’m now working full-time as a reading interventionist.”
Ranger teaches at Skowhegan Area Middle School, a rural, high-poverty school of about 550 students. When Educate Maine named her Teacher of the Year last October, the school held a surprise assembly in her honor. Among the attendees were her husband and three adult children, along with her mother, mother-in-law, best friend, and members of the media. Ranger admits she’s still getting used to the idea of being in such a prominent role, but says she’s honored and humbled by the recognition.
“When I keep my focus on the work of advocating for students, teachers, and elevating the teaching profession, I feel much more mission-focused and less concerned about being in front of a camera,” she says.
An avid reader, Ranger says she’s always wanted to help students who struggle with literacy improve their reading and writing skills. She mentions several current and former members of the literacy faculty at UMaine as mentors, including Jan Kristo, Rich Kent and Jane Wellman-Little.
“Along with teaching engaging classes that asked me to apply what I was learning with my current students and to think deeply about the educational decisions I was making, each of them challenged me to take my teaching career to the next level,” Ranger says.
After earning her M.Ed. in 2007, Ranger taught preservice teachers for two years as adjunct instructor at UMaine. She says learned a lot about her own teaching practice from the experience.
“I often brought examples of what I was currently teaching in my middle school classroom to share,” she says. “I wanted to be able to share my reasoning in selecting a particular lesson, how I designed it, and how it not only met certain learning standards, but also addressed the different learning styles of my individual students.”
As Teacher of the Year, Ranger will have a platform from which to promote and advance education-related issues. Two areas she’d like to focus on are the ways in which poverty impacts students’ learning and the importance of early childhood education. Three months into her tenure, she excited and invigorated by what lies ahead.
“I have loved meeting so many people — Maine teachers, business owners, members of higher education and nonprofit organizations, all interested in supporting and improving education for Maine students,” Ranger says. “This is just the beginning of viewing teaching and learning through a wider lens and seeing what it means to be a part of the larger educational landscape.”
Tell us about being named Maine Teacher of the Year. What was the experience like?
This year the “announcement” was handled a little differently because of a major change in the National Teacher of the Year application. For 2017 State Teachers of the Year, there was an additional application to be submitted and it was due on Nov. 1. So time was of the essence. Because of this, on Oct. 3, there was a “soft” surprise announcement with a few members of my administration, colleagues, Educate Maine, Teachers of the Year, the Maine State Board of Education, and the Maine DOE, and my husband. This would give me time to work on the National application before the news became public.
The official announcement was a total surprise to my students and colleagues, and still a surprise to me because they didn’t tell me when it would take place. That happened on the morning of Oct. 13, when there was a huge school-wide assembly. It was overwhelming (in a good way) to walk into the gymnasium and have everyone gathered for this celebration — including the folks who attended the “soft” announcement the previous week, as well as all of the students and staff from my school. I teared up when I saw my family — including my husband, my three adult children who traveled from southern Maine and Brooklyn, New York, my mother, my mother-in-law, and my best friend sitting in the front rows. And then there were the TV cameras — something I was definitely not accustomed to.
What has your life been like since then?
Life has been busy and much more public. I’ve been interviewed on radio and television to talk about what life is like in today’s classrooms and to discuss educational topics folks are curious about. I’ve attended the Maine Teacher of the Year Gala in November and an Education Symposium in December. I have loved meeting so many people — Maine teachers, business owners, members of higher education and nonprofit organizations, all interested in supporting and improving education for Maine students. This is just the beginning of viewing teaching and learning through a wider lens and seeing what it means to be a part of the larger educational landscape.
What kinds of things are you looking forward to doing as Maine Teacher of the Year? Do you plan to use the position to advocate for anything in particular?
I am looking forward to meeting and learning from other educators in Maine and throughout the country. In February I will meet the other state Teachers of the Year at an Induction Program and I’m excited about a time designated for “Lightning Lessons,” where we will share our best teaching practices with one another. I’m also looking forward to learning more about education policy and advocacy so I can be a strong voice for Maine teachers in communicating the complex realities of the classroom to affect positive change for our students. Two areas in particular I would like to focus on are addressing how poverty impacts students’ learning as well as how we can help overcome those barriers, and the importance of early childhood education.
Tell us about the school where you work. What do you enjoy about working there?
I teach at Skowhegan Area Middle School (SAMS). I love working at SAMS for several reasons, but will focus on two here. One is the staff — everyone, teachers, educational technicians, administrators, administrative assistants, custodians, food service personnel and counselors work together to make sure our students’ academic and social-emotional needs are met. Two, it has always been important to me to work where teachers’ voices are valued and that is the case with SAMS. In our school we have several structures in place to ensure teachers are part of the school’s decision-making process: Community Team Leaders, Curriculum Team Leaders, and our Professional Learning Community (PLC) are three platforms for teacher input on what will happen at our school in terms of curriculum, professional development, scheduling, and a variety of other topics.
It sounds like you have an active life outside of the classroom (yoga instructor, soup and sandwich volunteer). Can you talk about whether your volunteer work makes you a better teacher?
I enjoy my work outside of school — be it teaching yoga, volunteering at the evening Soup/Sandwich program, or working on projects as a trustee for the Waterville Public Library. I do think this work makes me a better teacher as it connects me to my school and home communities and opens up ways to connect my students with their community. One example is with our local nursing home. As a yoga teacher there, I speak regularly with the activity director. One day she and I were talking about bringing my students and her residents together and we ended up planning a “Readers Theater” event, which is now in its second year. It benefits my students as they are struggling readers and need work with fluency. Performing for the residents provides them a very safe and authentic audience. Their reading skills increase, and they also gain confidence that carries over to other areas of their lives. This event also benefits the residents cognitively and emotionally. They not only enjoy the performance, but also the “post-performance” conversations with my students.
You’ve also been an adjunct instructor at UMaine. What do you enjoy about being a college instructor?
I was an adjunct teacher for two years at UMaine, 2007–09. I loved the enthusiasm and energy of the preservice teachers. As an adjunct instructor, I often brought examples of what I was currently teaching in my middle school classroom to share. This prompted greater reflection about my own teaching practice as I wanted to be able to share my reasoning in selecting a particular lesson, how I designed it, and how it not only met certain learning standards, but also addressed the different learning styles of my individual students — all information important to aspiring educators.
I chose UMaine as a student because I was interested in pursuing a master’s degree in literacy education and knew that UMaine’s program had an outstanding reputation on a state and national level.
How would you describe the academic atmosphere at UMaine?
I would describe the academic atmosphere as student-centered and one with rigorous, yet attainable, standards.
Did you work closely with a mentor, professor or role model who made your UMaine experience better? If so, who and how?
I worked closely with Jan Kristo and Rich Kent, both of whom made my UMaine experience better. Along with teaching engaging classes that asked me to apply what I was learning with my current students and to think deeply about the educational decisions I was making, each of them challenged me to take my teaching career to the next level. Jan asked me to serve as an adjunct instructor at UMaine, and Rich asked me to present a literacy session for the National Writing Project at the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Conference in New York City.
Describe UMaine in one word.
What is your most memorable UMaine moment?
My graduation. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and as a nontraditional student with three children to support, earning my bachelor’s degree (University of Maine at Farmington) was quite an accomplishment. I never imagined I would go on to earn an advanced degree. I still get chills when I recall the “Pomp and Circumstance” music and see the pride in my parent’s faces. It was like I was earning this for all of us and I could not have done it without the unwavering support of my family and my professors at UMaine.
How did UMaine help you reach your professional goals?
I am an avid reader and have always wanted to help students who struggle with reading and other aspects of literacy to not only increase their capacities in these areas, but to develop a love of reading and writing and to see how these disciplines help them gain a richer understanding of themselves and the world around them. When I started my master’s program, one of my professional goals was to work primarily with students requiring extra support in areas of literacy. The Literacy Specialist program at UMaine was instrumental in helping me achieve this goal as I’m now working full time as a reading interventionist.
The majority of my reading intervention students come from low socioeconomic status homes. In Jan Kristo’s ERL 601: Seminar in Reading, one of the assignments was a research project on a topic in literacy. I researched and wrote a paper titled, “How Can We Increase Literacy Achievement in Children of Low Socioeconomic Status?” The information I read and wrote about for that research paper still informs my instruction today, and helps my students make notable gains in their reading achievement.
What was the most interesting, engaging, or helpful class you took at UMaine?
The Maine Writing Project (MWP) with Rich Kent. This was my first experience of extended embedded professional development — based on a model of teachers teaching teachers. A key component of the MWP was the Summer Institute, an intense time of reading, writing, looking at current research, and developing a professional presentation on an approach to teaching writing that we presented to the other fellows in the institute. This gave me the experience and confidence to begin presenting more frequently at local, state and national conferences. It also required me to reflect deeply on my own teaching practices — something that was incredibly helpful with my daily classroom instruction, and also benefitted me when I later went through National Board Certification. It has been 14 years since my Maine Writing Project summer and the Maine Writing Project is still helping me improve my teaching by keeping current with educational trends and effective literacy instruction. I’ve attended MWP writing workshops, including one on memoir writing (2013) by Maine author Monica Wood, in which I learned writing techniques specific to this genre that I use with my students, and last year, I participated in the MWP’s online book study, “In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom” by Kelly Gallagher. Last month I attended the MWP fall conference and learned about some new digital tools to help me provide more streamlined feedback to my writers. The Maine Writing Project remains one of the most impactful classes of my master’s program and I highly recommend it to any Maine teacher who wants meaningful, personalized professional development and an ongoing connection to like-minded, forward thinking educators.
Did you gain any hands-on or real world experience through your coursework? If so, tell us about it.
Yes, as part of my literacy program, I took ERL 569: Literacy Clinic with Jane Wellman-Little. In this class I worked as a tutor in the University of Maine’s Summer Reading and Writing Program — a literacy clinic where the focus was on providing tutoring to students ranging in grades K–12. During the clinic I worked with two students: one in first grade and one in high school. With Jane’s support and expertise, I performed diagnostic assessments and then, based on the results, implemented research-based interventions to increase their reading and writing achievement. As part of a cohort, I benefitted from observing and being observed by my peers, and the post observation debriefing. All aspects of this “real-world” experience, including assessment, interventions, communicating with parents, and peer observations/conversations are components I incorporated in my school’s summer learning program, and use in my reading intervention classroom throughout the school year.
Contact: Casey Kelly, 207.581.3751