A perfect fit: Liberty teacher Michelle McDonald has 'amazing first year' and named state Public Charter School District Teacher of the Year


Sometimes a dream can come true, and you do not have to move for it either.

That describes the story of Liberty STEAM Charter School third-grade lead teacher Michelle McDonald, who went from not knowing anything about the Sumter school one year ago to becoming the South Carolina Public Charter School District Teacher of the Year now.

A Lee County native and educator/administrator in her home county for 21 years with four advanced degrees in education to include a doctorate, McDonald said she felt last summer she was no longer making an impact on kids and was ready to leave the profession.

"I was at the point of stepping out of the door for something different, and in the process of looking for that something different, I came across Liberty," she said recently.

In looking at the school's website at the time, McDonald said she was impressed by the various enrichment opportunities offered to Liberty students, or "scholars" as the school refers to them.

They include visual arts, STEAM, physical education, music, various sports, chess, girls' and boys' empowerment classes, and the list goes on, she said.

Liberty offers two enrichment classes per day - as opposed to one in a traditional public school setting - and also opportunities after school and on the weekends.

"One of the things that stood out most to me about Liberty was their focus on the whole child," McDonald said. "It was not just words on paper, though, but there was evidence that they were doing other things like the enrichment opportunities and social and emotional learning lessons built into their curriculum."

Add to that a teaching fellow in each classroom with the lead teacher to allow for more small group instruction and differentiation to meet students where they were at, daily mentoring and other interventions, and seemingly every area where a child could lose out, Liberty had supports in place to prevent that.

"So, all those things that could stop a child from learning because they have other things going on, Liberty has something in place to address those needs," McDonald said. "Those structures were in place so that in the classroom, the teachers can really focus on teaching."


In her first year, McDonald was Liberty's overall network teacher of the year, and she also was named the South Carolina Public Charter School District Teacher of the Year. The district is the authorizer/sponsor for 39 charter schools in the state, including Liberty. Based on the accomplishments, McDonald will be part of the state teacher of the year competition next school year.

McDonald described it as an "amazing first year" and also spoke highly of Liberty making expectations known to parents and their support from the home - another critical piece in student development and growth.

Teachers, staff and parents all feel valued as well, she added, and are surveyed throughout the year.

Overall, she described the change to Liberty as a new lease on her career and thinks she is "moving back into my purpose," she said.

She describes Liberty as the right fit for her at this time in her career with a culture that focuses on teamwork, support, respect and trust.

All that allows her to then meet her own personal expectations, which include a safe learning environment for students, where they are not afraid to take risks and make mistakes.

"I believe when you create that safe learning environment that is conducive to learning for all students and you meet their needs where they are, then the growth and gains will come," McDonald said.

Liberty STEAM's Board of Directors has taken notice.

Director Jenny Knopf describes McDonald as a natural-born leader with an engaging presence that commands all.

"Dr. McDonald inspires greatness among our staff and has an excellent parent rapport," she said. "She is a perfect candidate for district teacher of the year, and we hope to see her go on for state."

After one year, Liberty leaders have also moved McDonald into the school's leader fellow program to assume a future leadership position.

Liberty Executive Director Trevor Ivey said McDonald is a relentless worker who continually strives to increase her effectiveness.

"I am a better educator having had the opportunity to lead and learn alongside her this school year," he said, "and we look forward to her stepping into an organization leadership role in the years to come."