For more than two weeks, Brittany Ray’s achievement had been western Washington County’s best-kept secret.
Friday, the Narraguagus High School teacher became the state’s most stunned educator when she was named Maine Teacher of the Year.
Ray, for once in her life, did not have a clue what was going on around her. Her colleagues in Harrington sent her on a ruse trip to Machias to get her out of town for the morning. She returned to a surprise assembly in her honor in the gymnasium with the governor as a guest.
The announcement came from Deborah Stewart, superintendent for SAD 37.
“This is a spectacular event for Narraguagus High School, SAD 37 and certainly Washington County,” Stewart told waiting students, community members and special guests from Augusta.
Ray of Milbridge is the first Washington County teacher to win the honor, and Gov. John Baldacci noted that distinction.
“Maybe the school should get another banner for Teacher of the Year,” Baldacci said, looking up at the school’s display of athletic achievements.
“The No. 1 school in the state of Maine today is Narraguagus High School, and you are the No. 1 teacher,” Baldacci said.
“Wow,” Ray said in response. “It’s not very often that I am speechless. I can’t believe I didn’t know.
“I am overwhelmed, but I am so honored. This award represents all the people who work so hard in education.”
She received flowers, a plaque, a lineup of speaking engagements statewide and two trips out of state that will make her the envy of her colleagues.
Next April she travels to meet President Bush in Washington, D.C., along with 49 other state teachers of the year. And next summer she will attend Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. with her national teaching colleagues.
Ray, 35, has been an English teacher at Narraguagus for 11 years. She grew up in Milbridge and graduated from Narraguagus as valedictorian in 1989. She majored in English and education at Colby College, where she also was valedictorian of her class.
She had been nominated for the award last January by her colleagues, including Peter Doak, the former Narraguagus principal whose 10 years there coincided with Ray’s first 10 years.
“I first knew she was someone special about 10 years ago when I interviewed for my position,” said Doak, who came down for the day from Lubec Consolidated School, where he is now a first-year principal.
“I asked the teachers I was meeting, ‘What do you want from me at Narraguagus?’ She put her hand up and said, ‘Mr. Doak, we want a teacher.’
“Being in her classroom is like walking into a field of electricity,” he said.
Ray still teaches English, but she expanded her duties in September to serve as the high school’s guidance counselor. She replaced Elliott Noyes, the school’s only previous guidance counselor, who retired in June after 36 years.
Ray knew she was one of four finalists for the award, presented annually by the Maine Department of Education and Hannaford Supermarkets.
The three other finalists were Deborah Bradburn of Coastal Ridge Elementary School in York; Chris Inman of Thornton Academy in Saco; and Lucy Levesque of the Capital Area Technical Center in Augusta.
Last year’s Teacher of the Year was Donna Tardif, a kindergarten teacher at Montello Elementary in Lewiston. But that announcement wasn’t a surprise. The local radio station didn’t realize the news was secret and broadcast the winner’s name two days in advance of the assembly.
The Department of Education went to extremes this year to keep the Ray news under wraps.
Town officials and school board members from SAD 37’s six towns were called to the assembly, but even they were not told the real reason. They believed instead that Commissioner Susan Gendron would be making some kind of school-friendly announcement.
Ray’s husband, Ron Smith, knew two weeks in advance. Other family members, including her parents, Gary and Paula Ray of Milbridge, were told in time to plan for the morning.
Ray’s three children – Bayley, 10; Thomas, 7; and Joseph, 2 – also knew. Joseph even climbed on his mother’s lap as she sat next to the governor.
Ray’s 83-year-old grandmother, Winona Bradbury of Milbridge, however, wasn’t told until one hour to go.
“They know I’m too much of a gossip,” Bradbury said after getting her photo taken with Baldacci.