Sumner educator takes Teacher of the Year honors

At the Thursday, May 1 gathering of the Claremont Unified School District Board of Education, local educator Debbie Plumley received some much-deserved recognition.

Ms. Plumley, who teaches third grade at Sumner Elementary School, was recognized as the district’s 2014 Teacher of the Year.

There is a longstanding tradition of colleagues pulling the wool over the winners’ eyes when it comes to the presentation of this coveted award. Ms. Plumley, who was told another Sumner teacher had earned the accolade, attended the meeting expecting to cheer for a colleague.

The longtime Claremont teacher, who admits, “This is not my forte, to be in the spotlight,” said she was surprised and a bit abashed to learn that the kudos were actually hers.

“It’s the highlight of a 34-year career,” she said. “I couldn’t be more humbled or honored.”

For Ms. Plumley, excelling as a teacher starts with loving what you do. Third graders, whom she has taught for 20 years, are among her favorite pupils.

“They’re eager to learn,” Ms. Plumley explained. “They generally enter third grade knowing how to read already, so they are reading to learn. I can provide a rich curriculum they can reach through reading and experiments and hands-on activities that they enjoy.”

Ms. Plumley has been so passionate about teaching elementary school that the vocation has become a family affair. Her daughter Alisha Plumley is now teaching second grade at Sumner Elementary School.

Ms. Plumley began her teaching career at Vista Elementary School in Claremont in 1980, while earning her teaching credential at Cal Poly Pomona. At the time, the college offered an internship program where a developing teacher could spend an entire year in a classroom and be paid minimum wage.

The following October, a Mountain View teacher retired and Ms. Plumley stepped into the second grade class for the rest of the year. The next school year, then Vista Principal Duane Jackman asked her to return to the school site, where she remained for 10 years.

Because Ms. Plumley was a job-share teacher, collaborating with another instructor, she had time to juggle work and the raising of Alisha and her brother Nathan.

“My children went to Chino schools. And I got to be a room mom for them,” Ms. Plumley shared.

After her tenure at Vista was over, she found a home at Sumner Elementary School. One of the reasons she appreciates Sumner is because of its unique relationship with the adjoining Danbury campus. Danbury is the home school for some 75 students from preschool through sixth grade who have physical disabilities or health impairments.

“Our students are exposed to a diverse group of children, and they learn to be empathetic and understanding of one another,” Ms. Plumley said. “They don’t just accept differences, they embrace them.”

Asked what Sumner event she looks forward to year after year, Ms. Plumley didn’t hesitate to cite the school’s Pioneer Day, held each March. 

“It’s a pet thing I enjoy coming back to,” she explained. “It’s about helping students understand what life was like long ago. Children get to experience candle-dipping, cross-stitching, square dancing—all kinds of activities. We end with a chuck wagon lunch, and then the kids wash the tin pans and dishes themselves.”

Like all teachers in the CUSD, Ms. Plumley is in the midst of transitioning her curriculum to reflect the new Common Core standards. Three teachers trained in the use of iPads and are helping mentor Ms. Plumley’s students, who will be soon taking their annual assessments online.

Change is always a little tough, and Ms. Plumley admits that she and her fellow educators are “learning as we go.” Making the new system work will take a collaborative effort. She does, however, see positive potential in the new standards.

“I’m very excited to embrace the Common Core in that I believe it hands the curriculum planning and the creative aspect of how you want to go about teaching back to the teachers,” Ms. Plumley said.

“Common Core covers less standards and expects students to delve deeper     and be more critical thinkers—to be able to demonstrate what they know in multiple ways,” she continued. “It’ll be a whole new approach as opposed to       filling in bubbles.”

Ms. Plumley emphasized that she has no complaints about her career of choice. She does say, however, that there are “enormous demands on teachers” in terms of accountability and expectations, both from district personnel and parents. Students, too, are facing a sea change.

“Kids haven’t changed all that much, but they are certainly expected to do that much more,” Ms. Plumley said.

She marvels at the way kids adapt to the new challenges of school.

“They are willing to kind of go with the flow, to follow where we’re going and what direction we’re headed in,” Ms. Plumley said. “They’re going to be taking a brand-new test on an iPad on a curriculum that’s new to them. I’m just amazed at their courage and resilience.”

Patti Colinco, who has taught third grade at Sumner with Ms. Plumley for about six years, is the one who nominated her for the Teacher of the Year honor.

“There’s nobody more deserving of this honor, and it’s probably quite overdue for what she’s done for our school and our district,” Ms. Colinco said. “She has shown exceptional dedication throughout her career and she is the first to volunteer for committees, whether it’s at the school or district-wide.”

Ms. Colinco said she also greatly admires her colleague’s dedication to whole child development.

“Academically, her bar is set so high as far as making sure children are prepared,” she said. “But she’s also the type of teacher that goes to a child’s baseball game or dance recital. She gets to know children and their families.”

After her years of experience, Ms. Plumley has some sage advice to offer to aspiring teachers.

“Find someone to connect with that really understands teaching and understands children at the age you are teaching,” she said. “Find a good person who helps you feel good about what you’re doing.”

And teachers, Ms. Plumley emphasized, do a lot of good.

“I think it’s a demanding job and if you love what you do, it becomes your life—it’s never-ending,” she said.

—Sarah Torribio



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