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Face of the Week: Joan McKinley

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Face of the Week: Joan McKinley

Leave the substitute stereotypes at the door of the classrooms where Joan McKinley is teaching. This is no disengaged or overwhelmed sub.

On a recent afternoon at Cromwell Valley Elementary School – McKinley’s second home, according to her dentist husband, Mark -- she put children through their paces with math flash-card bingo, by turns encouraging or re-directing as each worked to reach the correct answers. Her tone was crisp; her interactions were patient. Through cues both verbal and non, she left each child feeling valued. Can you tell how proud I am of you? she seemed to say.

“Most days, I seem to know what I’m doing,” says McKinley, 60, whose friendly-but-professional demeanor speaks to a former 35-year career as a banker. “I may not be as strict a teacher as some others; I’m kind of like a grandmother who visits for a while.

“Besides,” she adds, “all the children know me.” 

She’s being modest. McKinley has carved out a considerable reputation for herself at Cromwell Valley, first as a volunteer and these days as a more-or-less full-time substitute teacher. Each day, all day, she goes where the need is – from front office secretary to fourth-grade fill-in to working with the school’s most at-risk and behaviorally challenged students.

“Teachers fight over having Joan substitute in their classrooms,” says Cromwell’s principal, Cathy Thomas. “They know she will treat students kindly and provide them with meaningful instruction.”

McKinley’s experience at Cromwell Valley – going on since her daughter Elizabeth began kindergarten there in 2006 – is just part of a theme, she says. She loves working with children, McKinley says, and working in an elementary school, even long after her own children have moved on, is a great way to “have fun” doing what she loves.

Natural progression

Joan McKinley first fell for working with children as a teenager growing up in Ednor Gardens in the cavernous shadows of the old Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street. Back then, Orioles players lived in rowhomes near the stadium as well, and Joan soon built a lucrative business babysitting for the offspring of players like Boog Powell.

Later, through her career working for a succession of banks, McKinley never lost her interest in teaching children. The birth of her daughter rekindled an interest in getting into a school in some capacity, but for slightly different reasons: “When you become a parent, you realize how quickly it goes. I didn’t want to miss a minute of my child growing up,” she says.

Several years later, Joan and Mark adopted two sons from Guatemala, Daniel and Patrick, and soon started them at Cromwell Valley as well. Then, Joan was volunteering a few hours a day for a few days a week at the school and having so much fun there. With the family living around the corner in Campus Hills, her husband joked that she was literally living at the school, so she signed up to become a substitute teacher.

“I even love cafeteria duty,” she laughs now. “It’s all fun.”

“You want the best for your child when they are there, of course, but then you realize you want the best for every child,” she says. “You work to be patient and open-minded, and you realize that when someone has a little breakdown, they may not be coming from a good situation.”

Joan didn’t hesitate when her daughter or sons moved on to Dumbarton Middle, Loch Raven Academy, or Loch Raven High. Cromwell, she says, “is my comfort zone. “I love the staff here, and I love being busy every day. There’s never a down day.”

Joan and her husband did, however, extend their talents to volunteering at other schools – most notably running the concession stand at all Loch Raven High School athletic home contests. “We decided to upgrade things just a bit,” she says, “so I got my little George Foreman grill from home and we took it in and began to offer some cooked foods.”

Notes Will Lancaster, a STAT teacher at Loch Raven High, “For our Athletic Booster program at LRHS, she has been a pivotal leader.”

Being prepared

On a recent weekday, McKinley worked with Thomas and others in the school to work out a schedule that would cover several teachers being out unexpectedly. The challenge seemed to energize her, and she shifted effortlessly between physical education classes, special education classes, and lunch duty.

 “I never want to be unprepared as a substitute,” she says. “Now we all have to dig deep, and that means they do have to get things done during classtime, even when the normal teacher isn’t in.”

Each night, McKinley will check with department chairs to determine what needs to be done in each classroom. If she knows her assignments ahead of time, she’ll fashion lesson plans based on where each class is in the curriculum. “If I subbed at other schools, I’d lose a lot by having to walk into a classroom where I don’t know where everything is,” she says.

Thomas agrees that McKinley, while able to sub elsewhere, is unique to Cromwell Valley. “Ms. McKinley is part of the CVE family. She substitutes for us in some capacity every day,” she says. And, she adds of her Renaissance substitute, “She also is well known for making the best chocolate chip cookies in the world. She makes a plate of cookies for all staff members on their birthdays. She is an amazing person!”

McKinley still finds time to bake those cookies, hang out at the community pool during the summer, and look out after her 93-year-old family member, who is in hospice but living at the McKinley’s house. “It catches me a little off guard when asked about free time as it seems to fall into place along with everything else,” she says.

Yet despite the other aspects of a busy life – children in college or high school, her responsibilities at home and in the community – McKinley’s thoughts invariably return to the classroom; if she’s out, for instance, she says it’s a treat to see former students at the local grocery and hear about their successes.  

“That,” she says, “is the kind of thing that makes your day.”

In fact, there are a lot of things that makes Joan McKinley’s days, most of them involving Cromwell Valley Elementary. During a recent school day, for instance, a classroom visitor piqued the interest of several students. They watched him watch Ms. McKinley and watched as he took pictures as she taught. They wondered among themselves who he was, and why he was there, and what it meant for Ms. McKinley.

Later, they worked up the nerve to ask her their questions. “Did you get the job?” one student asked.

Always reassuring, Ms. McKinley told them the answer they hoped to hear: “I already have the best job ever.”    

Do you know of a special person who would be a good candidate for the BCPS “Face of the Week”? Let us know! Send their name, contact information, and what makes them special to  

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