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Person of the Week
Martha Curran: An Award-Winning Educator
With 19 years experience as a Polson Middle School 8th grade English teacher, Martha Curran was recently named the Connecticut Association of School Middle Level Teacher of the Year. (Photo by Susan Talpey/The Source)
The leaves are just starting to change color for fall, but it’s already been a year of professional awards for Polson Middle School 8th grade English teacher Martha Curran.
First, she was named the Connecticut Association of Schools (CAS) Middle Level Teacher of the Year in June.
“It was the end of the year and I was a judge at the student talent show. I was up on stage and it was announced by the students,” she says. “My 8th grade English teacher colleagues had turned the letter into a poster that was as big as me. It was great.”
In recognition of Martha’s state-wide achievement and her many years of service to the local school system, she was then named Polson Middle School Teacher of the Year, and then Madison School’s Teacher of the Year at the teacher convocation on Aug. 18.
To put the icing on the cake, Martha was informed on Sept. 15 that she is now in the final four vying for the honor of the Connecticut State Department of Education Teacher of the Year.
Earlier, as part of the state’s top 15 candidates, Martha delivered a panel presentation and interview at the legislative office in Hartford. Her lesson was on the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani student and vocal advocate for education of girls, who was shot in the head by the Taliban at the age of 15.
“Malala was a girl who wanted to learn and was an activist for education for young girls. I presented non-fiction articles about her story and held a discussion on the themes of gender equity and the right to education,” she says.
Martha’s presentation was in the style of a Socratic seminar, in which the educator presents a text and its themes, then steps asides and plays a support role to the student’s exchange of ideas, issues, and opinions. While such debate is more common with high school and college students, Martha has seen her middle school students embrace these discussions.
“There’s a great quote: The learning starts when the teacher stops talking—and that’s hard for me because I’m always talking, but it’s true,” Martha says, smiling. “The goal is for them to talk to each other. We want them to think about what they’re learning and to share that with their peers.”
The final task in the State Teacher of the Year application process is a visit from 18 judges who will assess Martha teaching at Polson and interview Madison Schools’ administrators, members of the Board of Education, teachers, and students.
Developing a love of reading and writing is at the heart of Martha’s 19-year career teaching 8th grade English in Madison—first at Brown Middle School and following the realignment of schools, Polson Middle School.
While Martha’s “first and only” teaching job turned out to be the perfect fit for her, it wasn’t her first career choice.
“I never thought about being a teacher when I was growing up [in Trumbull] or when I went to college,” she says.
Martha studied an undergraduate degree in communications at the University of Connecticut. After working at a public relations firm, she became the national sales trainer for hardware company H.B. Ives.
“I traveled the country teaching sales representatives to sell products. And this was not the exciting hardware—it was door hardware and locks,” she laughs.
“At the time, I was pregnant with my third child and traveling all over for work, and a friend told me ‘You’re a great teacher, but you’re teaching the wrong students. You should be teaching children.’”
Martha was accepted into the Connecticut Alternate Route to Certification program for people entering a second career as a teacher.
“I had my baby at the end of March, quit my job in May, and went straight into an intensive summer program,” she says. “I was sure that I’d teach 4th or 5th grade, and the night before I began student teaching, I got a call to say that I’d been moved to 8th grade, so I walked into 8th grade summer school.”
Before she had completed the program, Martha was hired to start the school year in Madison. She says it was a great start to her new profession.
“The intensive certification program totally prepared me because I was not fresh out of college. I believe that my business background made me a better teacher,” she says.
As for the sudden switch in grade levels, Martha has no regrets.
“My heart is in 8th grade. They are wonderful young people who are learning who they are, what they think and what they believe,” she says. “They are becoming more skeptical which is a good thing as their teacher, but they are still kids and they have fun.”
Over the past 19 years, Martha says that the middle school curriculum has become more engaging for young people, citing favorite units such as the Heroes Journey, Dystopia, Social Issues, and Global Perspectives, which features non-fiction texts by teenage protagonists who have overcome significant adversity.
“I used to teach classic literature, like Edgar Allen Poe, but now the curriculum has completely changed—and it’s for the better,” she says. “Now, we teach the reader not the book and it’s a broadening experience for our students. We are focused on giving students the skills they need to read and analyze any book. It’s a paradigm shift.”
Like many dedicated teachers, Martha finds her work rewarding and says the achievements can be measured in the big and small successes.
“Teaching writing is very rewarding and some young people discover they have a gift. I’ve had students write to me and say that they find college easy while their friends are struggling because they learned to write well in 8th grade.”
Martha says that teaching students in the same grade over many years has changed her as an educator.
“When I first started, I was very structured and I’d mark up every edit on every page. Over the years, I’ve developed greater balance in assessment. My expectations are high, but how I work with my students to get there has changed,” she says. “There’s a lot going on in kid’s worlds that has nothing to do with school, and you have to meet them in their world.”
And certainly, the world of young people is different, with technology playing a central role.
“Technology has entered into every part of our lives, and I think it’s a positive thing. This is their world, this is the future, and as educators, we must teach them to use it wisely,” she says.
“For young people today, some of their first literary influences are their friends on their smart phones and iPads. We teach them that there are unique ways to talk and write to different audiences, that chatting socially to their friends is not the same as having a conversation with people they want to inform, to persuade, to influence.”
Martha has called North Branford home for 31 years, living with her husband, Stephen, who commutes to New York City for his network operations role at NBC. Here they raised their three children: Meghan, 26, John, 23, and Jack, 18. Martha was most surprised when one of her children followed her professional footsteps.
“My daughter, Meghan, studied marketing at Quinnipiac University and was miserable in her job in Stamford. She called me up and said ‘Mom, remember how I always made fun of you for being a teacher? Well, I’m going to be one, too.’” Martha laughs. “She now has her first teaching position—1st grade in West Haven.”
In addition to classroom teaching, Martha is the Language Arts 5 to 8 Program Coordinator for Madison Schools. After stepping up to the job due to a vacancy, she took the leadership role permanently in 2010 and completed her administrator’s certificate at University of New England.
“It’s the best of both worlds. My favorite part of the day is in the classroom with the kids, but I also enjoy sharing great ideas with the teachers and writing curriculum. It’s an honor to help motivate, inspire, and support the teachers to have what they need to do their best.”
After 19 years perfecting the job, Martha says the recent awards are a humbling experience.
“It’s been very exciting, but really, I feel like it’s not about me,” she says. “The people I work with have made me the teacher I am. Hands down.”