Building Relationships Pays Big Dividends
What makes Susan Mahoney effective as a classroom teacher and in her role as President of the Moscow Education Association? Finding ways to connect, bridge gaps, overcome differences and solve problems. In short, building relationships in order to achieve goals and find success.
It’s easy to see that dynamic in play in the classroom, where Mahoney works as a Title 1 reading teacher at Lena Whitmore Elementary School in Moscow. She works with students from kindergarten through fifth grade, which opens up the potential for long-term relationships in which she can help them build confidence and self-esteem as a precursor to improved reading skills. “Once we get them to buy-in, some of these kids have incredible drive and determination,” she says. “If they see that I am invested, they will work their tails off.”
Enjoying the satisfaction of helping kids learn to read represents the culmination of a unique career path for Mahoney, who earned her degree in forestry (with a specialty in acid rain research) from the University of Maine—only to find that there were no jobs to be had in that field during an economic downturn. So she headed for Idaho; picking the Gem State because of fond memories of a summer spent working for the forest service in La Grande, OR, and a brother living in Spokane , WA.
After working as a private music teacher, Mahoney was looking for a new challenge when her own children reached mid-elementary age. She found that challenge—along with incredible rewards—teaching reading to kids who needed extra help. “Teaching these struggling students to read, turning them on to the joys of reading—it is the most amazing and rewarding thing that I can imagine doing,” she says.
Mahoney has transferred her dedication and relationship-building skills outside of the classroom as well, providing professional development to other teachers and diving in as the President of the Moscow Education Association. She has broadened communication channels with members and beefed up recruitment efforts. “We are looking at adding recruitment officers to complement our terrific building reps, as well as emphasizing an increase in ESP membership,” she says.
The relationship between a local association and the school board can sometimes be problematic, but Mahoney has found ways to work with collaboratively with both the board and the district administration. “I’ve tried to convince them that we can be an ally just as easily as we can be an adversary,” she says. A barbecue hosted by MEA at a local city park in conjunction with back to school activities is one way to bridge the gap. More practically, she has been involved with discussion about how to implement Idaho’s new Career Ladder salary schedule, which is structurally very different from the current model. “We are working with the board to find something that works for everyone,” Mahoney says.
While the Moscow district has historically enjoyed solid support from the local community and the MEA has been one of the strongest bargaining units in the state, there are challenges to their stability looming on the horizon. Nearby Washington is scheduled to implement a new class-size law that will require that state to hire large numbers of additional teachers, and Moscow is (and has been) a prime target. “Establishing manageable class sizes and providing competitive compensation will be even more important in light of the Washington law,” Mahoney notes.
The ace-in-the-hole for MEA members is Mahoney’s knack for building relationships and determination to overcome challenges. The would-be forestry worker has carved out a niche as a difference-maker in the Association as well as with struggling readers in the classroom.