VUHS teacher gets award as New England’s ‘most promising’: Lauded for concern for, motivation of students

VERGENNES — Vergennes Union High School English teacher Allison Mahoney remembers in May when colleague Michael Thomas nominated her for the New England Association of Teachers of English Marian Gleason Award, which goes to the “Most Promising New Teacher” in the field.
Mahoney, a 31-year-old Burlington native and Grand Isle resident beginning her third year at VUHS, was grateful to Thomas for the nomination.
But, as a young teacher in her first job, she never thought she would receive the honor.
“I went home and told my husband, ‘I’m never going to win this award. It’s so nice of him to nominate me. I feel great that he did that, but I’m not going to win,’” Mahoney said. “And my husband was like, ‘I bet you’re going to win.’”
Her husband was right. Over the second weekend of September the association informed Mahoney that she had won the award, which recognizes a teacher who shows “extensive knowledge of his or her discipline, interest in and concern for students and the ability to challenge and motivate them, (and) involvement in professional organizations and/or staff development.”
Mahoney, who took a winding path to teaching, said the honor meant a lot to her. In an interview, emotion briefly got the better of her as she explained why.
Mahoney said her VUHS colleagues deserve credit for the award she will receive in Foxboro, Mass., at an Oct. 20-21 conference.
“You’re part of such a team as a teacher. It’s hard to be singled out for whatever award you get because it’s everybody. We’re a school community,” she said.
And Thomas in particular helped her adjust to the VUHS classroom after Mahoney had spent five years at the Burlington Boys & Girls Club.
“This is partially his award,” she said. “He spent a lot of time mentoring me and supporting me as I made that difficult transition from the nonprofit sector into the education sector. I owe a lot to him.”
Finally, she addressed her efforts.
“It’s really humbling. It’s really an honor. I often don’t give myself enough credit for the work that I do,” she said. “It means a lot.”
Thomas believes the award is richly deserved. In his nomination letter he wrote that Mahoney made an immediate impact as a long-term substitute when she arrived during what he called “an English department disaster.”
“A new hire had tragically left the job after only a few weeks,” Thomas wrote. “A series of substitute teachers that followed while we searched for a replacement left behind a group of increasingly disengaged and angry juniors and seniors. Allison, a brand new English teacher, stepped confidently into this agitated classroom in an unfamiliar community and within days had won over the students, implemented a new smooth-flowing curriculum, and developed a reputation as both deeply caring and highly committed.”
Thomas calls Mahoney “a highly valued colleague and a powerful advocate for students” whose international and environmental studies experience has “greatly strengthened the diversity and social relevance of our program.”
Thomas described Mahoney as “a key player in some of our current ongoing initiatives” who brings “positive energy to our school-wide work shifting toward a standard-based grading system,” and has committed “to advocating for students and for authentic student voice,” including through the VUHS school-wide advisory system.
The recent award is not, in fact, Mahoney’s first “teaching” honor: In her senior year at Burlington High School teachers gave her their Florence Green Award as the student they saw as the most promising future teacher.
But when Mahoney went to St. Lawrence University she did not sign up for that course of study.
“I got this award, and I was totally surprised, hadn’t thought about it,” she said. “And I got to college and I just didn’t pursue it. I just didn’t want to accept my fate. I wanted to try other things. I wanted to study abroad and I didn’t want to student-teach while I was in college because I felt young and didn’t feel like I was experienced enough and could build rapport with students.”
She chose instead a dual major of Environmental Studies and English.
“I wanted to have a science side, but I also wanted to have a humanities side because I was pretty undecided about what I wanted to do after school,” she said.
Studying abroad in East Africa while in college started her thinking about education.
“During my semester, I interned for an NGO that built schools in rural Uganda,” she wrote in an email. “My connection to education and the systems that support it can certainly be traced back to this experience.”
After her 2007 graduation from St. Lawrence, Mahoney spent a year in New Zealand with a program that matched people with farms who are willing to exchange room and board for about four hours a day of work.
Then it was back to Burlington to figure things out and volunteer with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, tutoring English; the Lake Champlain Committee; the Girls on the Run program; and the Boys & Girls Club.
“I was waitressing and doing odd jobs,” Mahoney said. “I was just piecing things together. I always said I wished I could get paid to do all the volunteer jobs that I loved to do.”
Because she enjoyed mentoring and offering academic support to Boys & Girls Club members and tutoring refugees, Mahoney accepted her destiny: She signed up for a seven-month program to get her teaching certificate.
“I just got connected to the club and really loved the work, and really loved the work that I was doing with refugee resettlement, and decided I wanted to go back to school to get my teaching certificate,” she said.
As Mahoney concluded that program a job opened at the Boys & Girls Club for an educator. She was hired and worked there until VUHS came calling. At the club she helped found a mentoring program to create a more lasting impact on club members’ lives.
“We identified a number of the club kids we were serving who were not going on to be successful after high school. And we were really struggling to take those next steps. So we put together what we called, and they still call, the Early Promise Program,” Mahoney said.
That program matches individual students with supportive adults “throughout their entire academic career.” Mahoney said the adult, for example, could be a reading buddy or a math tutor. About 80 percent of the participants have gone on to some form of post-secondary education, either Job Corps, community college or a four-year college.
“We built a system of support that starts in kindergarten, when we started serving kids, up until post-secondary,” she said. “I worked with a team at the club to put it together, to execute it and to staff it.”
Mahoney said her time at the club was invaluable.
“One of the big lessons I learned from that whole experience is that it’s so much more than just what’s happening with that lesson on that day. You really have to get to know kids and their families and their communities and their values. And once you understand that and build that relationship with students and with families then the work is true joy,” she said.
But Mahoney wanted to make more of an impact in young people’s lives than a few hours after school allowed, and the classroom called.
It was tough to leave, she said, but she’s glad she did.
“Some of the kids I worked with, they needed a lot of support. And I was able to provide some of it,” she recalled, “but I wasn’t in the classroom with them, so I couldn’t provide as much support as I wanted.”
Still, the move to the classroom wasn’t easy, despite Thomas’s description.
“One of the challenges was just keeping up with the pace of a school … that constant planning piece, always having to know what’s next, planning for multiple different circumstances,” Mahoney said.
But she also discovered she was able to make the greater impact she sought.
“The joy was being able to connect with students and share my passions with them and help them become effective communicators and really develop that skill in them,” Mahoney said, “so when they go out in the world they feel like they have a path and they have a voice in their life.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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