Spotlight: M.E. Hersey (MA '19)February 14, 2020
When English teacher Margaret (M.E.) Hersey (MA ’19) builds reading lists for her predominantly black and brown students, the first thing she thinks about is representation. “I want them to imagine radical possibilities for their futures and the futures of their communities,” she says. “To do that, they need to be exposed to authors who look and sound like them.” M.E. won the 2019-20 Massachusetts Milken Educator Award at Springfield Honors Academy on December 4, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: What do you like about high school students?
M.E. Hersey (MA '19): I think what I love most about high school students is their eagerness. So often teenagers in our society get put down as lazy and out of touch, but that has never been my experience. I am amazed every single day by their capacity for curiosity, compassion, joy, and drive all at the same time. I truly believe that every high school student has big hopes for themselves. Sometimes this gets covered up by fear or frustration, but it’s always there and there is so much power in that. It is an honor to be around that kind of power every day.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
M.E.: Both my parents are educators. I spent my childhood sitting at dinner listening to stories from their classrooms. When I started subbing on my breaks from college, mainly because it was just a job I could find, I didn’t expect it to become my career. On the contrary, I spent my whole life sure I would never teach. In my early years this was because it seemed like endless homework. In adolescence and young adulthood it was because having the same career as my parents didn’t sound romantic or adventurous. But I learned by example the value in working from a place of passion and integrity. When I started subbing in the schools and I felt that spark, things just clicked for me. It was a long time coming.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
M.E.: It was a grind. I loved my students, I loved my work and I made a lot of mistakes.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
M.E.: bell hooks, Timmary Leary, Michelle Obama, Cheryl Strayed, Paulo Freire, Jen Walts, Ian Howes, Kristine and Scott Hersey, Mary Oliver, Dr. Keisha Green, Celeste, Will Marquess, Anis Mojgani.
MFF: How do you choose the reading list for your English classes?
M.E.: The first thing I think about is representation. I want my students, who are predominantly black and brown, to imagine radical possibilities for their futures and the futures of their communities. In order to do that they need to be exposed to authors who look and sound like them. We read texts by people of color, youth, women, LGBTQ authors, immigrants, and authors from diverse economic backgrounds. At the same time, I want students to have the skills to understand and dismantle marginalizing systems of power, which means we need to read some of the canonical works as well. When we do, we approach them with a critical lens and ask questions like, “What does it mean that this text is an American classic?”
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
M.E.: My Milken Award notification was surreal and so special. The first thing that went through my mind was, “Wait, did they just say my name?” I didn’t even really know what to do until all of my students and coworkers started shoving me off the bleachers. As I walked out to the center of the gym and heard students cheering my name, I felt so emotional. I kept thinking of all of the educators I respect endlessly who worked for years without this type of recognition. I felt humbled to be so lucky.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
M.E.: My students responded with the most beautiful outpouring of love. They made me cards, wrote notes all over my board and showed me selfies they had taken of themselves with me on the news on their TVs that night. It is a really amazing thing to have a student tell you that they feel special because they are in your class. Their reaction, more than anything else, is what has made me the most proud. Now that some time has gone by, things have settled down a bit (with the exception of the “Miss, you must be award-winning for something!” joke). But I do think there is an element of this experience that has been validating for all of us and will last.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
M.E.: Success for me has always been about happiness. But one of the most important lessons that I have learned in my time as an educator is that happiness and success come in many different forms and are deeply connected to our cultural value system.
I try not to impose my specific understanding of what leads to happiness on my students. We spend a lot of time throughout the year talking about what they want in their future, and I try to support them from that place. The one value that I think I will always impose, though, is being open to learning.
MFF: What do you hope your students remember from their time with you?
M.E.: That their ideas are valuable and they deserve space in the world to share them. I hope they will remember to read and listen with a critical lens and will have the skills to write and speak with conviction.
BONUS: Click the video below to learn about M.E.’s Adventure Club, which organizes outdoor activities for students around the Pioneer Valley.
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