Gay Anne McDonald: Special educator making a difference in the lives of students statewide
If there’s a constant theme from Gay Anne McDonald’s career as an educator, it’s that none of her moves were planned. Instead, each new position came from a desire to meet the needs of students — particularly students with special needs.
McDonald (’92, ’08G) grew up in Lincoln, Maine and graduated from Mattanawcook Academy, before attending the University of Maine, where she earned a degree in elementary education in 1992.
After college, she returned to Lincoln, where she taught kindergarten, second grade and third grade in her hometown school district, Regional School Unit 67.
“The thing I love about education is that every day is an opportunity to make a difference in a student’s life. You may not even realize it until later, but every interaction can have a positive impact,” says McDonald. “Everyone has had a teacher who made a difference for them.”
As a general educator, McDonald says she tended to gravitate to children with special needs. When her school had an opening for a special education teacher that it was having a hard time filling, she mentioned to the special education director that she was interested in taking it on. The director supported her, and she was granted conditional certification to teach special education.
“They saw something in me, that I was connecting with students with disabilities,” McDonald says.
To become fully certified, she returned to UMaine in 2005 for a master’s degree in special education. Today, UMaine’s graduate program in special education is entirely online. But at the time it was all in-person, so McDonald would drive from Lincoln to Orono in the evenings for night classes.
“I really enjoyed the collegial aspect of it,” she says. “The content of the coursework was great, particularly the classes on challenging behaviors. But the professors also encouraged discussion between the students in the program about how the content could be applied to our schools.”
After earning her master’s, McDonald continued as a special education teacher for a few more years until the special education director job in RSU 67 opened up. Again, the position was open for a while before she expressed an interest and co-workers encouraged her to go for it.
“I just remember thinking it would be nice to be at the district level and work with all the families across the community and the schools and maybe make a bigger impact,” she says.
McDonald says one of the most rewarding parts of being a special education director was working with former students from her time as both a general classroom teacher and a special education teacher.
“Students that I had in kindergarten, second and third grade were sitting in on their IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meetings as juniors and seniors in high school, talking about their goals and aspirations,” McDonald says.
After about a decade as special education director, McDonald’s career pivoted once again earlier this year when she became executive director of MADSEC, Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities. The nonprofit professional and advocacy organization acts as a resource for Maine schools and agencies that serve children with disabilities and represents special education within the state. Although she is new to the role, McDonald sees it as a natural evolution of what she was doing on the local level in Lincoln.
“It just felt like a great opportunity to support special education administrators statewide, recruit more staff and retain the staff that schools already have,” McDonald says. “Education is not an easy profession to begin with, so the more we can support teachers — and special education teachers specifically — the more we can make sure we are meeting the needs of students.”
With two degrees from UMaine, McDonald says the university has played an important role in preparing her to lead MADSEC, even if it’s a position she never imagined herself in when she embarked on her career in education back in 1992.
“Going into the master’s program, my goal was to learn strategies, interventions and instructional methods to support students with learning disabilities, which I definitely got from the courses and instructors,” she says.
“At the same time, when I was a general education teacher, I never thought I’d one day be a special education teacher or a school administrator,” McDonald says. “It’s just the path I’ve taken and I’m happy that I have the opportunity to make a difference in so many lives.”
Contact: Casey Kelly, email@example.com