Nancy Shay sat perched atop her chair, encouraging her Richard Montgomery High School students not just to sing “Happy Birthday” to a fellow student, but to do it with as much feeling as they could possibly muster.
Whether it’s a simple song, a book the class is reading or a review of a movie they just saw, Shay, who was just named Montgomery County Public School Teacher of the Year, is determined to challenge every single one of her teenage students.
And her students know it.
“Her intonation, the way she gives life to books and films, and the way she is passionate” are the things that make Shay such a good teacher, said Emma McLeond, a junior.
“She’s always energized,” said junior Skyler Bozeman.
Shay has been teaching for three decades. She’s been in the English department at Richard Montgomery for 23 years and currently heads the department while teaching three classes.
Principal Damon Monteleone, who was one of several school employees and parents who submitted Shay’s name for the award, said, “Her passion for the craft of teaching, respect for the content and encouragement of all students to engage in discourse as a means to high levels of literacy and critical thinking are an inspiration to us all.”
He added, “There is no student she cannot teach. There is no adult she cannot inspire.”
This is all “very humbling” to Shay, who noted, “There are hundreds of people who report to work every day and do amazing work with students.”
Shay graduated from Springbrook High School in Silver Spring in 1981 and went on to earn two master’s degrees. Through much of her education, she studied “classics by dead white males,” she recalled.
Now, her students are reading books by a varied group of authors. “We read culturally relevant books now,” she said. During class, discussions center on the books, authors and relevant issues of the day.
The 57-year-old mother of two teenage boys has “always really, really enjoyed literature.” Her favorite author is Virginia Woolf.
She prides herself on two programs she established. “Rich Talks,” a takeoff on the popular TED Talks, revolves around issues the students choose, including race, culture and words that hurt. The talks include an open mic portion.
The idea for these talks came to her amid the recent presidential election and some of the hate speech she heard on the news and even in her school, she said.
She also co-leads an afterschool homework club in which high-achieving students work together with “the most challenged” students two afternoons a week. The 70 participating students cap off their studies with a free dinner in the cafeteria.
Shay is an International Baccalaureate trainer and has spoken at academic conferences to let them know what high school students are learning.
“I’m usually the only one there without a Ph.D.,” she said.
Shay is ready to learn from everyone, especially her students when it comes to new technology.
“They are way more tech-savvy. They are the masters, and we, the adults, are the students,” she said.
While she enjoys reading on her own and attending her sons’ soccer games, Shay’s mind never strays far from teaching. She admitted to working out new ways to stimulate her students even while vacuuming or folding laundry.
“I want to be better. I want to feel I truly deserve this honor,” said Shay, who now will write essays and complete an application to compete for Maryland Teacher of the Year.
Students haven’t really changed that much in her 30 years of teaching. If anything, they are more accepting. “I just think they are kinder and more accepting,” she said.
“Kind” also is the way students think of her. “Miss Shay will actually come up and talk to you. I feel she is legitimately concerned about her students. She has a dialogue with everyone,” said senior Chris Parrish, who has been in one of Shay’s classes for the past two years.
The two finalists for County teacher of the year were Melissa Segal, a fourth-grade teacher at Luxmanor Elementary School in Rockville, and Cherin Hershkowitz, a math content specialist at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown.