For about 25 years, Karen McGraw has been teaching kids at Dearborn Heights Montessori Center. Yet when she found out she was named a Top Teacher, McGraw was excited but humble. It was “unexpected,” she says – though she received numerous raves from parents, who wrote things like, “I have never met a teacher who cared more about the well-being and education of children” and “My kids are the luckiest students to have such an amazing teacher.”
“I don’t think a person seeks that out. That’s not why we’re doing this. So I was very surprised,” McGraw says, sitting in her classroom and surrounded by plants the kids help her care for (McGraw has quite the green thumb and uses the plants when teaching botany).
Though modest, she lights up while talking about teaching a Montessori curriculum to her first- through third-graders, even showing examples of work they’ve done. The kids get to follow their interests, whether learning math and science or history and language arts.
“I prepare what they call the environment, but it’s then the children’s work,” she says. “It becomes theirs – and what they get excited about and what direction they want to take it.” Even two of McGraw’s three sons attended Dearborn Heights Montessori in the past. She says the Montessori way of teaching and learning “feels right.”
“It’s not me imparting the knowledge that I’ve gained. It’s the discovery that the children make. … And that’s what propels them to start taking charge of their education.”
In her classroom, the kids are constantly discovering, doing most of their daily work on the floor in a big open space – and mom Rima Younes says she’s seen McGraw sitting on the floor with the kids, engaged and “camouflaged” working among them.
Younes, who is an educator herself and a mom of five – three of whom have had McGraw and another who will next year – says McGraw has “the juxtaposition of sternness yet love I’ve never seen in another individual. She is so committed to teaching.”
Two of her children – Julia, now in fourth grade, and Ali, a third grader in McGraw’s class – submitted their own nominations. Ali wrote, “Mrs. Karen doesn’t put us down, she makes us feel better and better each day” and adds she “always makes me feel like such a special kid.” Julia noted she misses being in McGraw’s class now that she’s moved up – and recalls when McGraw taught her how to do a cartwheel: “I used to doubt myself and not trust my instincts. I will always love her for teaching me to believe in myself.” Mom adds Julia “still gets teary eyed” talking about her.
“She really teaches them to dig deep inside to want more – to never settle for mediocrity. She instills a love for learning that is unparalleled,” Younes says. That’s something McGraw truly wants her students to gain. Upon reading Ali’s nomination, she pauses and reflects.
“I’m here with them as well learning,” she says. “That’s probably my most joyful time, is sharing in a complete day of all the learning … not just trying to teach it to them. But it’s that actual shared experience that means a lot.”
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski