Photo: Esai Morales, award-winning actor and gala host; Harriet Sanford, President and CEO of the NEA Foundation; Debra McDonald; Gary Phoebus, President and CEO of NEA Member Benefits.
By Jesse Graytock
On February 12, the NEA Foundation named Debra McDonald the winner of the 2016 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. Gracious while speaking after her well-earned win, she was quick to tip her hat to the other nominees, recognizing the important work that each and every teacher on stage that night does in their classrooms every day. Following the evening’s Salute to Excellence in Education Gala, I toasted Mrs. McDonald and congratulated her on her momentous evening. We had some sparkling wine, shared some words, and recalled the last time I had consumed a beverage in her presence…
Photo: Jesse Graytock, of the NEA Foundation, and Debra McDonald share a toast at last Friday’s gala in Washington, D.C.
If my calculations were correct, it had been precisely twenty two years, two weeks, and five days since I had last known the pleasures of a Capri Sun. I’d always enjoyed the stuff, but quite honestly I was never all that good at getting the straw through the pouch without turning my immediate surroundings into a Jackson Pollock painting. So when a gaggle of adorable three year olds asked me to help them tap their juice packets, I nearly froze. The pressure was real, and it was on.
Last Fall, I had the pleasure of visiting the classroom of Mrs. McDonald at the Wayne County Schools Career Center in Smithville, Ohio. Some colleagues and I spent a few days helping her students film a video that premiered to an audience of more than 850 at the NEA Foundation gala. In Mrs. McDonald’s unique classroom, juniors and seniors who have expressed an interest in pursuing careers as educators spend parts of each day working with three and four year olds. This unique setting allows Mrs. McDonald’s students to work hands-on with preschoolers in a classroom setting, providing them with invaluable experiences that they can tap into if they choose to continue on the path to becoming educators.
While visiting, it was clear to me that the setting was just as much of a joy for the high school students as it was for the little tykes. The classroom was divided into clearly defined sections that allowed for both structured and free activities, with the older students working impressively to ensure that their young wards stayed on schedule.
It was impossible to discern what part of the day the students enjoyed the most, but I can personally vouch for my favorite: snack time. After observing classroom activities for a few hours, one of the students kindly asked if I would like to join her group for snacks. I could barely contain my excitement.
After sitting down at a ridiculously tiny table with matching tiny chairs (note to self: don’t sit in a chair made for a small child unless you’re 100% sure you can get out of it without your knees buckling), and was greeted with a gourmet spread of popcorn and Capri Sun. One moment later, I was asked by three anxious preschoolers if I wouldn’t mind helping them open their juice pouches. A single bead of cold sweat crawled down my temple as past childhood pouch mishaps flashed before my eyes. After mining every ounce of courage I could muster, I steadied my hands and realized that these children were relying on me to help them on their journey to a snack time promised land. Also, it dawned on me that I’m an adult who should be able to effectively put a straw through a hole.
With this moment of awesome clarity, I successfully punctured the juice sacks and we all feasted like royalty. So thank you, students of Mrs. McDonald’s classroom, for helping me believe in myself. Thank you for letting me experience a truly amazing setting for learning, one that I’ll never forget. And thank you, Mrs. McDonald, for allowing me to see, first hand, the amazing impact you’ve had on generations of students. To that, I raise a pouch of Capri Sun.
Relive an amazing night and watch the NEA Foundation gala in its entirety now.