It takes a special person to be a teacher. As with many professions, it is more than a job, or even a career. It is a calling. And for Donna Toomey, Frankford Elementary School’s Teacher of the Year, it is a calling that came from turning a negative experience into a positive one.
“I had a difficult experience in school,” Toomey shared, adding that she had a less-than-desirable teacher who had a misguided way of dealing with Toomey, as she was not a great reader as a young person. “It was in third grade, and I just said, ‘I’m not going to do this. I am going to do something different.” She added that her mother had been a school paraprofessional, but teaching wasn’t something Toomey always knew she would do; it just sort of grew from her experience.
“It’s not like I sat at my chalkboard [pretending to teach],” she added with a laugh, “I just wanted to do something different.”
And something different she does. She has earned both the respect and admiration that only a very gifted teacher gets and, through her laughter and stories of her family and her children, the students relate to her in a special way.
Katie Murray, one of Toomey’s students who nominated her for her award, said that Mrs. Toomey’s stories about her sons and her April Fool’s jokes are some of the best parts of being in her class, adding that she is “really nice.”
Thomas Cruz said Toomey lets the class have extra recess and free time – something he appreciates – and Ramond Turner said she makes math (math!) fun. “She is funny and she is fun with learning, and it’s fun to learn calculators with her,” said Turner.
Toomey has brought that “fun” into her classroom, making it a safe and enjoyable place to both learn and make mistakes, without fear of ridicule. She has all of her students’ pictures up on the wall, with what they want to be when they grow up.
“I always ask them, can you be a firefighter without an education? Can you be a veterinarian?” She said she also tries to instill in her students that, although they might come from all different kinds of backgrounds, they all have an equal chance of meeting and exceeding their goals.
“I tell them there are no excuses. You can do it, like anyone else.”
Toomey uses herself as an example. At 41 years old, she just recently finished her master’s degree in instruction at Wilmington University, after two years of classes.
“It is a huge honor,” she said of receiving Teacher of the Year honors. Getting my master’s and getting this award – I was stunned. It’s like my 15 minutes of fame,” she joked.
Toomey comes from Fairfax County, Va., where she was born and raised. She taught elementary school there for 10 years before moving to Delaware to take care of her ailing father. After her father died, she decided to try to get a job in the area and got hired for a position in the English Language Learner (ELL) program. She eventually started to teach kindergarten and did that for five years, then taught third grade for one year. This is her first year teaching second grade – a grade she loves and said is very fulfilling to teach.
“It’s a pretty awesome grade to teach,” she explained. “You really feel like you are teaching. Like at the end of the day, you’ll say, ‘Wow, I just taught my whole class how to turn fractions into decimals.’ And they are at the age where they still want to learn.”
And that “wow” factor is not lost on Toomey’s students, either. As Turner put it, “Second grade is fun because we learn new ways to do problems.”