ROOT — Dorothy McDonald recalls the moment she realized she wanted to teach. It was thanks to Mrs. Smith, the third grade teacher at McDonald’s.
“She got to know us as students,” McDonald said. “I was introverted and she helped me come out of my shell. I just loved the way she taught us. She taught the whole person.
After that school year, McDonald couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, I want to be like Mrs. Smith. That’s what I want to do,” McDonald said. “I never had any other career choice.”
This enthusiasm remained. This spring, McDonald completed his 32nd and final year of teaching second grade in the Racine Unified School District, including the final 24 years at Roosevelt Elementary School, 915 Romayne Ave.
McDonald was one of 51 RUSD retirees this month. She considered working another year or two, but the COVID-19 pandemic and a change in schedule contributed to her retirement this year.
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McDonald loved working as an educator, but said she was “thrilled” to begin the next stage of her life.
“I had tears in my eyes, (but) it was more of a happy emotion for me,” McDonald said of the last day of school. “It’s almost a guilty joy, because I really loved teaching, but I really love not having to teach full-time again.”
McDonald loved teaching, and Roosevelt Elementary principal Lori Nasci said she excelled at it. Nasci worked in elementary schools for 15 years and called McDonald’s the best instructor she had seen.
“I’ve never met a better teacher,” Nasci said. “She will go above and beyond, always, to make sure the kids succeed.”
McDonald looked back with affection and gratitude on his more than three decades of teaching. Her early years were challenging, but after getting used to the job, McDonald said the vast majority of her time with the students was excellent.
“Out of 32 years, at least 20 of them, I couldn’t believe I was being paid to do this,” McDonald said. “I think, ‘Oh my God, I could do this for free.’ That’s how much I loved it.
However, his time working at the Root Unified schools is probably not over. McDonald plans to be a substitute teacher starting this fall. Nasci said she would gladly welcome McDonald to Roosevelt as a replacement.
McDonald’s also plans to teach a classroom management course at the college level or for professional development. Classroom management was a challenge at first, but she became an expert after a dozen years.
“The number one priority was classroom management and connecting with my students,” McDonald said. “Once I could manage my class and connect and we became a team, academia is so much easier.”
Nasci accepted. “If behaviors aren’t controlled, children can’t learn,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Nasci worked with McDonald’s for two years and couldn’t remember a time when she was called into McDonald’s room for student behavior issues. “She doesn’t waste a single minute of teaching, but at the same time she makes it fun,” Nasci said.
McDonald was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and moved to Racine in 1980 while in college. She graduated from Case High School and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After college, she taught at North Park Elementary for eight years before moving to Roosevelt.
All of McDonald’s 32 years have been spent teaching grade two at RUSD. She enjoyed teaching this level because it is a transition period for the students.
“They’re doing everything they can to show, ‘Hey, I’m a bigger one now,'” McDonald said. “I love where they are socially, the mindset of a second year student. I would say that’s a perfect mark.
McDonald’s third-grade instructor, Mrs. Smith, was the first of many to help shape his teaching style. She has also received advice from many peers. When faced with a problem, McDonald said it was crucial to humble yourself and seek advice from more experienced teachers.
“Either keep doing what you’re doing and get no results, or ask someone and try something new,” McDonald said. “I say to any teacher: your greatest job as an educator is to look at the staff member who knows how to do what you want to do, and go ask. Don’t try to figure it out by yourself.
Patience and forgiveness are other key traits to being a good teacher.
“You have to have a forgiving heart because students aren’t always nice,” McDonald said. “They’re going to say and do things that…rub you the wrong way.”
She initially took it personally when a student said something disrespectful, but learned not to over time. “I started to understand that they were bringing luggage into the classroom,” McDonald said. “They really aren’t mad at you.”
Along with helpful colleagues, McDonald said her faith and optimism have guided her through the challenges. One of his biggest challenges was the changing role of technology. Computers were not used during his early years of teaching, but now students often work on laptops.
McDonald’s also learned to teach remotely during the pandemic. Partly because of technology, McDonald said children have shorter attention spans than when she started teaching.
Much has changed at McDonald’s in more than three decades of teaching, but she said the basic needs of children have not changed.
“They still want the same things: they want to feel safe, they want to feel loved, they want to feel that you care about them,” McDonald said.
Establishing ground rules was key to creating a safe and loving classroom. For McDonald, it was crucial to connect with students and establish procedures during the first weeks of school. She called this period a “21-day training camp”.
“Teach them everything,” McDonald said. “Literally teach them how to get into class and start their day… The little things really go a long way.”
This was particularly important in 2021-22. It was the first full in-person school year for his students, whose kindergarten and first grade were disrupted by the pandemic.
McDonald said things started slowly, but the students eventually picked up and excelled. She said this past school year involved one of her favorite classes, a fitting end to her career.
“It was just such a blessing,” McDonald said. “What a way out.”