About a week after Thomas Jefferson Elementary School kindergarten teacher Suzanne Conroy McDonnell was selected as the 2019 Glendale Unified School District Teacher of the Year, the veteran educator was still in disbelief.
McDonnell, whose mother, Mary Kay Conroy, was an instructor at Hoover High School, said she feels she’s deserving, though not any more than the nearly 1,250 instructors districtwide.
“Everybody works so hard every day and everybody is passionate about what they do,” McDonnell said on an overcast Thursday afternoon, exactly a week after winning the award. “This is why I don’t feel that I’m standing out more than anyone else. It was just really humbling, and it was very validating.”
Yet, McDonnell’s humility doesn’t hide her excellence.
The Incarnation Catholic School graduate is a Glendale native, having lived in the city since 1964.
McDonnell began substitute teaching with Glendale Unified in 1983 and then started full-time employment the following year as a kindergarten teacher.
Since then, she’s taught kindergarten, from 1984 to 1993 and then 2007 to the present, with a 14-year stint in between as a member of Jefferson Elementary’s ’s Totally Learning Consultants, working with at-risk children.
“It’s awesome,” McDonnell said. “I’ve love this school. I love kindergarten and loved being a teacher on special assignment. I never really thought of leaving Jefferson.”
Yet, stability hardly equals stagnation for McDonnell.
She has implemented several disciplines and elements into her curriculum, including the Mindful Schools training program, which is a system of classes that help teachers deal with “toxic stress.”
In addition to Mindful Schools, McDonnell is involved in her school’s Positive Behavior Intervention and Support program, along with restorative practices, which emphasize prevention and positivity to problems.
She’s even recently taken part in Capacitar International training, utilized in 40 countries, which calls for trauma healing.
“Our students don’t deal with the type of trauma in other places, but the training focuses a lot on calming bodies down, breathing and life skills,” McDonnell said. “It’s perfect for kindergarten.”
“I’ve love this school. I love kindergarten and loved being a teacher on special assignment. I never really thought of leaving Jefferson.”
The training very much benefits McDonnell, who handles a class of 26 students.
“When you have no assistance, that’s a challenge,” McDonnell said. “That’s a real challenge and that’s too many kids.”
Despite the issues, McDonnell said she thinks teaching her young students is about more than just curriculum, and she welcomes parental involvement.
“The question I ask myself is, ‘Am I connecting with each kid?’” McDonnell said. “Every child needs to have a sense of belonging in every classroom. That is something I feel really strong about, that every child feels they belong here and they are safe.”
McDonnell’s efforts weren’t just appreciated by students and parents.
Jefferson principal Armineh Alexan, a former kindergarten teacher, nominated McDonnell for the honor, which puts her in the running for one of several Los Angeles County Teachers of the Year awards.
“Every time I walk into her classroom I think, ‘It would have been great if my twins were in her class’ or ‘I wish she was my children’s kindergarten teacher,’” Alexan said.
Mary Mason, the district’s executive director of elementary education and another former kindergarten teacher, surprised McDonnell when she and interim Supt. Kelly King handed the Jefferson instructor a bouquet of flowers on campus on May 16 and informed her of her award.
“She was a role model to me when I came to GUSD and was hired as a kindergarten teacher in 1987,” Mason said of McDonnell.
Mason added, “Kindergarten was foreign to me, and I so vividly remember coming to Jefferson for a kindergarten workshop and seeing Suzanne’s classroom and being blown away. She inspired me to be the best developmental kindergarten teacher I could be.”
McDonnell’s family, including her husband, Bob, and children, Patrick, Sarah and Amy, were not surprised by the honor bestowed her.
“They were so proud,” Suzanne McDonnell said. “I think, as teachers, you don’t want that attention, and we’re used to helping others, so when you get it, you feel like you don’t deserve.”
McDonnell added, “But my family believes I deserve it, and so many family and friends have reached out to congratulate me. I’m super proud.”