School of Education and Human Development

20 Years of Leadership in Literacy

Blooming trees on the USM Gorham campus.

The University of Southern Maine (SUM) has led the way in the field of Literacy Education for the past 20 years. In fact, since 2000, a quarter of the outstanding educators who have received the Maine Teacher of the Year (MTOY) honors have been graduates of the University.  

The Maine Teacher of the Year recognition is sponsored by the Maine Department of Education, “To honor and recognize excellence in teaching, and highlight the importance and impact of the profession.” The MTOY is affiliated with the National Teacher of the Year (NTOY) Program which appoints a National Selection Committee who chooses their candidates from the list of the State Teachers of the Year.

“The Department of Education recognizes and celebrates all the heroic teachers who daily impact the lives and learning of Maine’s children,” says Pender Makin, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, University of Maine System Trustee and alumna. “The Maine Teachers of the Year are exemplars amongst their colleagues, and a reflection of the skills and knowledge that exists in our educator workforce.”

“Education is a calling and a chance to improve lives across generations. It is also a partnership and at Maine’s public universities we are proud of our education program graduates and our close association with Maine’s local schools,” said Dannel Malloy, Chancellor of the University of Maine System.

Having been awarded five MTOY titles in the past 20 years, USM’s MSEd in Literacy Education graduates have been instrumental in shaping educational achievement in Maine.  Dr. Peter Lancia was honored with the MTOY distinction in 2002, after earning his MSEd in Literacy Education in 1996 from USM, where he is also a lecturer in Literacy Education. Lancia has been in the Westbrook Schools for 27 years culminating in his present position as Superintendent of Schools since 2016. In 2015, Lancia was also honored as the Maine Curriculum Leader of the Year.

Jumping forward a few years to 2006 when Donna Tardif, who earned a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Literacy Education in 2004 from the University, was honored with the MTOY distinction. Tardif is presently a fifth-grade teacher at the Phippsburg Elementary School.

Gloria Noyes earned her MSEd in Literacy Education in 1998 before being bestowed with the honor of the MTOY in 2009. Since receiving the award, Noyes has moved from being a much beloved fifth-grade teacher at the Congin School in Westbrook to becoming the principal of the Falmouth Elementary School in 2016.

In 2010, Kevin Grover, then a second-grade teacher at Falmouth Elementary School, was awarded the MTOY.  During his trip to Washington, DC, Grover was honored with a photo taken of him and then Vice-President Joe Biden. Grover, who passed away in 2012, was an alumnus having earned his MSEd in Literacy Education from the University in 2004.

And finally, this year, the MTOY has been awarded to Heather Whitaker, who earned her MSEd in Literacy Education in 2004.  Whitaker has been teaching for 18 years and is presently an alternative education teacher at Gorham Middle School. A proponent of experiential learning, Whitaker’s students help with a garden that yields 800 pounds of produce for the Gorham Food Pantry. As walkers pass the school getting their daily exercise, Whitaker is known to call out, “Quit walking and come weed.”

In addition, MTOY program chooses its participants for the state teacher of the year from a pool of teachers who have been honored as the Teacher of the Year in their specific county of whom there have been several USM Literacy Education graduates. In fact, over the last two years, honorees have included Ethel Atkinson, a literacy teacher for grades six through eight at Bonny Eagle Middle School in Buxton, and Christine Del Rossi, a Visual Arts teacher at Mt. Ararat high school. Atkinson and Del Rossi are from York and Sagadahoc counties, respectively.  

"I am extremely proud of the good work that our graduates do in their schools and communities, particularly our graduates who have been recognized for teaching excellence,” says Andrea Stairs-Davenport, Professor of Literacy, Language, and Culture at USM.  “The faculty in the Literacy, Language, and Culture department often talk about how we are in awe of our graduate students' intellect, motivation, and creativity. It is not surprising to see them recognized as Teachers of the Year."

The University of Southern Maine is not just an institution of higher learning but one that fosters the spirit of service, caring and responsibility in all its alumni. Teaching is rewarding yet difficult work that requires the patience and tenacity of those who choose to follow in its path. The University could not be more proud of all of its graduates who follow this significant calling to help with the success of the next generation of thinkers and doers.