Joe Hennessey, Maine 2019 Teacher of the Year: A Year in Review

An open letter written by Maine’s 2019 Teacher of the Year Joe Hennessey.

To my fellow colleagues, educators of all levels, and community members throughout the state:

What follows is an open letter to you which originates from a place of profound gratitude. It has been my sincere pleasure and honor to represent our profession and its schools as the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year, and I hope that I have fulfilled that charge acceptably. Eighteen months ago, my principal nominated me for a recognition which many of our colleagues would have been unable to accept for any number of reasons or would have refused upon philosophical grounds. I think we can all agree that there is no single best teacher in our state, and unequivocally, I am only one piece of a larger whole in Guilford; no person works in a vacuum, and I find myself having been named Teacher of the Year precisely because the students, parents, community members, and staff members where I work put me in a position to succeed. Time and again, they have permitted me to broaden my intellectual horizons and to augment my pedagogy by taking risks, iterating, and refining. They have shown me great trust and support throughout my year of recognition, and I am not able to repay their kindness other than to offer my deepest thanks.

Despite my initial inner conflict, and throughout my personal doubts, I have sought to serve as an ambassador of public education in Maine on behalf of my students, their sending communities, my school, and various invested parties. I have endeavored to gather, to highlight, and to learn beyond the opportunities afforded to most of my colleagues, and my immediate task is to share these salient pieces with others. As I transition back into a regular classroom routine, I have thought about how to articulate these truths in a coherent manner to others. For the time being, I have grouped my thoughts into these three tasks from the outset of my year: What I have gathered, what I have highlighted, and I what I have learned.

The resources which I have been able to gather on behalf of myself and others over my year are numerous and profound.  On one front, my professional network has been expanded with 55 cohort colleagues, who are diverse and capable beyond my ability to express. On another front, I have also become aware of new paradigms, teacher/community leadership opportunities, centers for teaching excellence, and partners in education. It appears that we are all working in concert, whether we are aware of one another or not. The crux, to me, is how to harness these different pieces together so that we may all benefit from one another’s strengths, across grade levels and state lines. Perhaps a comprehensive, well-indexed database of resources? A dedicated center for teaching excellence in the geographic center of our state? New fellowships and networking opportunities for teachers? I do not know, but I am optimistic that some assortment of the above could be realized if we decide we want it.

In my written and spoken work, I have striven to highlight the challenges and assets of rural education in our state. I have written honestly about our challenges with chronic absenteeism, low literacy/functional illiteracy, progressive mental health education, and spare mental health infrastructure because I know how hard every school district is working to meet the needs of its students. I have also written and spoken about the wonderful additions to intellectual life Maine’s rural areas are making through interdisciplinary classes, project-based learning, multiple pathways via differentiation, and the essential time and space to think and grow which Maine’s rural students are afforded. Schools in the countryside are adaptable, responsive, and committed to being community centers– a notion that other portions of our country are not fortunate enough to possess at present. I remain convinced that rural schools are good places to be in the state of Maine, and that they themselves will be the determining factor in what the essential public service of the future will look like.

My reading, writing, speaking, and listening has taken me all over the world in the last twelve months. From California, to Washington, D.C., to Virginia, to New York, to Alabama, to Louisiana, and throughout our own state, I have seen what public education has to offer American society. In Germany and Switzerland, I have further observed the capacity and enthusiasm of young people from entirely disparate walks of life. And, what I have found in all of these places is an interconnected, interdependent, curious, compassionate, and ultimately fallible world. It is up to us to think critically, articulate ourselves well, and help students to learn to do the same, regardless of whether we agree with their eventual conclusions. In contemporary life as in the past, we are better as individuals and groups for having been exposed to diverse viewpoints. And, I will, in kind, treasure this travel for the rest of my life and incorporate those experiences back into my classroom through planned lessons, impromptu discussions, and further extrapolation which I cannot anticipate as of now.

More than anything, though, my time as the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year has been affirming, and my mantra that we are all “thinking people” has been further impressed upon me. In Maine and beyond, we are all capable of great intellect and great thought, and our academic and technical education programs ought to reflect that premise. Education– formal and informal, primary or secondary or post-secondary– remains the path to self-betterment and community-betterment. And, in a time of social and political division, technological acceleration, and possibly increased alienation and distraction, it has been made clearer to me that we need all of Maine’s society to achieve what it is capable of achieving. Our collective progress depends upon the essential public service– public education– and we need to frame our discussions moving forward around that fact.

Learning from colleagues and organizations from coast to coast and continent to continent, it is more evident to me than before that our education system is whatever we make it and are willing to pursue. I am enchanted by learning and in awe of the art which education is able to evince in our society. In a manner of closing, I would equate James Weldon Johnson’s “Before a Painting” as metaphor for education writ large.

I knew not who had wrought with skill so fine
What I beheld; nor by what laws of art
He had created life and love and heart
On canvas, from mere color, curve and line.
Silent I stood and made no move or sign;
Not with the crowd, but reverently apart;
Nor felt the power my rooted limbs to start,
But mutely gazed upon that face divine.

And over me the sense of beauty fell,
As music over a raptured listener to
The deep-voiced organ breathing out a hymn;
Or as on one who kneels, his beads to tell,
There falls the aureate glory filtered through
The windows in some old cathedral dim

Let us all look forward to taking the time and space we need to educate one another, educate ourselves, and remember the value of teaching and learning in Maine.


Joseph Hennessey
English Teacher– Piscataquis Community High School of Guilford, Maine
2018 Piscataquis County Teacher of the Year
2019 Maine Teacher of the Year

Media Release: State Finalists Announced for 2020 Maine Teacher of the Year

Three Maine teachers have been announced as State finalists for the 2020 Maine Teacher of the Year. The finalists were chosen from the 2019 Maine County Teachers of the Year honored earlier this year at the Hall of Flags.

The Maine Teacher of the Year program honors outstanding teachers who represent the thousands of excellent educators in Maine. Maine’s Teacher of the Year serves as an advocate for the teaching profession, education and students, and represents Maine in the National Teacher of the Year program.

Each educator was nominated by a member of their community for their exemplary service in education and dedication to their students. They were selected by a distinguished panel of teachers, principals, and business community members from a pool of hundreds of other nominated teachers in their communities.

State Finalists:

Heather WhitakerHeather Whitaker

Heather Whitaker is the alternative education teacher at Gorham Middle School and earlier this year she was named 2019 Cumberland County Teacher of the Year.

Passionate about combining learning opportunities with the needs of the community, she started her school’s garden, which donates over 800 pounds of produce for the local food pantry each year. She also was a founding member of the Gorham BackPack Program, which provides students in her community, experiencing chronic hunger, with food over the weekend. Her alternative education students are active volunteers for both programs.

Whitaker is an advocate for and experienced in using restorative practices and experiential learning. She believes in the power of relationships and that learning should be meaningful to students. Whenever possible, Whitaker takes students out of the classroom on educational field trips and gets them involved in community volunteering.

Whitaker holds a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education from Boston College and a Master of Science in Literacy from University of Southern Maine and has been teaching for 18 years.

Rob TaylorRob Taylor

Rob Taylor started teaching in 1989.  He has spent his entire 30 year career in Maine Regional School Unit 73, teaching secondary math and science, Advanced Placement Environmental Science and also served as district Gifted and Talented Coordinator. He recently transferred to a middle school science position at Spruce Mountain Middle School in Jay and earlier this year was named the 2019 Franklin County Teacher of the Year.  He is an educational leader, working to implement standards via the district curriculum committee and address Maine’s teacher shortfall through participation in the Maine Math and Science Teaching Excellence Collaborative.

Taylor believes that students need to “get outside and connect to nature’. His Envirothon teams have won nine Maine Envirothon championships and were 1st in Aquatics and 6th overall at the 2018 International Envirothon.  His current school projects include greenhouse and aquaculture systems that provide produce for local pantries, participation in an American Chestnut Foundation restoration project, a drinking water monitoring program, and school renewable energy solar panel and wind turbine projects.

Taylor received a Bachelor of Science in Biology/Secondary Education from the University of Maine at Farmington and a Master of Education degree from the University of Maine.

Tom GrayTom Gray

2019 Knox County Teacher of the Year, Tom teaches Social Studies, English, and Gifted and Talented at Camden Hills Regional High School (Five Town CSD).  He has been teaching for 21 years.

As the coordinator of the school’s Intercultural Program, he has developed direct connections with educators in partner schools around the world, from China, to France, to Morocco. These school-to-school partnerships offer opportunities for students to interact and collaborate with peers in other cultures to investigate real-world problems. By leveraging technology to transcend physical limitations he prepares his students to thrive as global citizens. Gray believes in the “transformational power of adventure” for students as a way to build into education an opportunity for kids to cope with the unknown so they can discover their own agency.

In the 2019-2020 school year, Tom will pioneer a new, district-wide initiative in Innovation Engineering, in partnership with the University of Maine.

Tom is a National Board Certified Teacher.  He holds a Bachelor of Arts from University of Delaware; Master of Arts in Teaching, Master of Arts in History from the University of Maine; Graduate Certificate in Gifted and Talented Education at the University of Maine at Farmington; and is currently enrolled in the St. Joseph’s College Master of Science in Educational Leadership program.

One of these three teachers will be named the 2020 Maine Teacher of the Year, an honor awarded each year to one teacher in Maine. The announcement will be in October after a school site visit and final interview.

Maine Teacher of the Year is a program of the Maine Department of Education, administered by Educate Maine. For more information, visit

MEDIA RELEASE: 2019 County Teachers of the Year Honored 


CONTACT: Kelli Deveaux (207) 624-6747 or

Teachers from 15 of Maine’s counties were honored today in Maine’s State Capitol at an annual event in the Hall of Flags announcing the 2019 Maine County Teachers of the Year.

The group is the county finalists for Maine Teacher of the Year, an honor awarded each year to one teacher in Maine.

Commissioner of Education Pender Makin notes, “The MTOY program offers all of us the opportunity to celebrate the phenomenal work that is being accomplished every day in Maine’s public schools. Each of the County Teachers of the Year exemplifies a deep commitment to Maine’s students and a belief in the power of education to create positive and lasting change. They bring their compassion, creativity, and innovation to the art and science of teaching, amplifying the dreams and futures of their students.  In highlighting the accomplishments of these 15 educators, we are also honoring all of Maine’s teachers,  and the outstanding talents and dedication they bring to their classrooms and communities.”

The educators were each nominated by a member of their community for their exemplary service in education, and dedication to their students. They were selected by a distinguished panel of teachers, principals and business community members from a pool of hundreds of other nominated teachers in their communities.

2019 County Teachers of the Year: 

    • Androscoggin County: Shawn Rice, Edward Little High School, Auburn 
    • Aroostook County: Kim Barnes, Caribou Middle School 
    • Cumberland County: Heather Whitaker, Gorham Middle School 
    • Franklin County: Robert Taylor, Spruce Mountain Middle/High School, Jay 
    • Hancock County: Nell Herrmann, Blue Hill Consolidated School 
    • Kennebec County: Emily Bowen, Hall-Dale Middle/High School, Farmingdale
    • Knox County: Thomas Gray, Camden Hills Regional High School 
    • Oxford County: Linda Andrews, Buckfield Junior/Senior High School, Hartford -Sumner Elementary 
    • Penobscot County: Tracy Deschaine, Orono Middle School 
    • Piscataquis County: Bobbi Tardif, SeDoMoCha School, Dover-Foxcroft
    • Sagadahoc County: Charles Bingham, Morse High School, Bath
    • Somerset County: Katherine Bertini, Madison Junior High School
    • Waldo County: Ashley Reynolds, Captain Albert Stevens School, Belfast 
    • Washington County: Jeanna Carver, Jonesport Elementary School 
    • York County: Ethel Atkinson, Bonny Eagle Middle School, Buxton 

    *Lincoln County did not have a nominee who both met the criteria and completed the application process.

    As ambassadors for teachers, students, and quality education in Maine, these teachers will continue to participate in the intensive State Teacher of the Year selection process, including the submission of a video showcasing their classroom instructional practices.

    The field will be narrowed to eight semi-finalists who will begin working on their professional portfolio, a component of the National Teacher of the Year process. After the portfolio review and presentations to a select panel, the field is narrowed to three finalists. In October, the 2020 Maine Teacher of the Year will be selected after a school site visit and final interview. 

    The Maine Teacher of the Year is a program of the Maine Department of Education. It is with gratitude from the Maine DOE that the program is   administered by Educate Maine, a business-led organization working to ensure Maine’s students and workers are the best educated and highly skilled in the world. 

    For more information, visit or Director of Communications, Kelli Deveaux at (207) 624-6747 or 

MEDIA ADVISORY: Reminder – Maine DOE to Announce Maine County Teachers of the Year May 9, 2019

15 Maine teachers will be announced and honored as part of the Maine Department of Education’s annual Maine County Teachers of the Year awards. The teachers were nominated by a member of their community, underwent a rigorous application process, and were chosen by a panel of teachers, principals and business community members.

Maine county teachers of the year serve as ambassadors for teachers, students, and quality education state-wide. The Maine County Teachers of the Year are available to make presentations to local and regional organizations. Through the summer, they will continue to participate in an intensive State Teacher of the Year selection process.

15 Maine teachers, representing 15 of 16 counties* Maine Department of Education Commissioner, Pender Makin; Executive Director of Educate Maine, Ed Cervone; State Board of Education, Wilson Hess; and 2019 Teacher of the Year, Joseph Hennessey.
*Lincoln County did not have a nominee who both met the criteria and engaged in the application process.

Hall of Flags, Maine State Capitol

Thursday, May 9, 2018 from 2:00pm – 3:00pm

For more information contact Maine DOE Director of Communications, Kelli Deveaux at (207) 624-6747 or

Teacher of the Year Nominations Open Until February 4th

As a reminder, nominations are still open 2019 County Teachers of the Year and 2020 Teacher of the Year. Members of the public are encouraged to nominate educators who demonstrate a commitment to excellence and nurturing the achievement of all students.

Nominations can be made through the Maine Teacher of the Year Website. The Maine Department of Education and Educate Maine have been accepting nominations since January 4, 2019. Nominations will remain open until 5:00 pm Feb. 4, 2019.