Destiny brings Paige McKinley to the halls of AMSA


Tuesday Benander

Paige McKinley in front of students in her first year at AMSA.

It is August 2021, just a week before AMSA’s doors are flung open for the start of the new school year. Paige McKinley learns that she has landed a position as the school’s newest English teacher. That’s the good news — she finally has her dream job. The bad news? She has a week to read every book for both the 9th and 11th grade curricula.

This is indicative of her personality as an overachiever. She could have read the books as the classes got to them, but for her there was never a question that she read them all before the year began. For most people, the idea would be overwhelming, maybe impossible, but for Ms. McKinley it was just another challenge to conquer. 

For anyone who has experienced her as a teacher, her passion for literature is immediately obvious, although teaching wasn’t always what she wanted to do.

Story time: Most people go through the terrible experience of having to put a pet to sleep. It is a kind of coming of age, and it was for Ms. McKinley beyond simple and immediate pain. It also sent her down a distinct path.

“I always wanted to be a vet growing up,” she said. “And then when I was about 10 years old, I put my first cat down, and I realized I couldn’t be a vet.”

As fate would have it, the experience found its way into English class.

“I loved English class,” she said. “And it was that same year that I wrote a story about my cat. And my teacher told me that I should keep writing. So I kept writing.”

It was the first time that she realized she was good at something. Becoming an English teacher was something she was born to do. 

Destiny rarely runs in straight lines, and Ms. McKinley originally wanted to be an elementary school teacher.

“When I was a senior in high school, we had the option to do a senior internship at the end of the year,” she said. “I did my internship with my second grade teacher that I had had. And I loved it.”

Ms. McKinley sharing a laugh with the author over dictionary entries. (Faith McNulty)

But when she got to college, she realized that she missed reading higher-order books and having in-depth discussions about them.

“I decided I wanted to go to secondary school, so here I am,” she said.

What made her decide to apply at AMSA? Well, she had been teaching at Acton Boxborough Regional High School, her alma mater, as a long-term substitute for a teacher on maternity leave. It was a great chance to teach, but she wanted more.

“I realized that I wanted somewhere where I could start fresh, that was my own place,” she said. “AMSA became that place.”

Back to fate: Ms. McKinley’s mother actually thought of sending her to AMSA when she was finishing elementary school, but the waiting list was too long. Sometimes, destiny’s path runs full circle.

As a substitute, Ms. McKinley had no idea how long she would be teaching a class, which proved stressful and mentally draining. She wanted to have her own class, not “I’m your teacher until this other teacher gets back, or I’m your teacher the rest of this year, but I don’t know about next year.”

Ms. McKinley coming to AMSA has the feeling of destiny on many fronts. The first time she came to the campus, she saw a woman she swore she recognized.

“Wow, she looks just like my high school cheer coach,” Ms. McKinley said she thought. Sure enough, the woman was AMSA Vice Principal Amanda Cence, her high school cheerleading coach.

“I had no idea she was the vice principal here!” Ms. McKinley said. “And she had a very embarrassing picture of our cheer team, from when I was a freshman in high school, and she had it on her desk. So she pointed me out. And that was my very first day of work here.” 

The first day of school is a day typically filled with excitement, anxiety, and everything in between for students. Believe it or not, it’s the same way for teachers, especially if they’re new to the school.

Ms. McKinley was understandably nervous. Her goal to branch out and start fresh, which she had worked incredibly hard to achieve, was about to come true.

“I’m like, OK, I’m going to meet my first class of students. I hope they like me. What if I can’t get my words out? But as soon as my class came in, they were very chatty, and I could tell that there are a lot of friendships already in the class, which just made me feel a lot better that they weren’t just sitting there and staring at me.”

Every classroom full of students has its own dynamic and no two classes are alike. Ms. McKinley’s freshmen are generally low-key, but the juniors? Well …

Ms. McKinley is always armed with a smile and a laugh, even on bus duty. (Tuesday Benander)

“There was one class that I knew was going to give me a run for my money,” she said. So she tailored lesson plans to the personalities. That did not alter expectations, however. Anyone who has Ms. McKinley knows that she expects a lot from her students — which is a common theme when it comes to teachers at AMSA, so she fits in perfectly.

Speaking of fits, when Ms. McKinley first toured AMSA, she was shown her room — 800 in the White Building — and there was only one desk. She just assumed it was hers, so it was a shock when she later realized that she’d be sharing a room with fellow English teacher Carolyn Rousseau.

“I walked in, and Ms. Rousseau is there at the only desk and I thought, Where do I go? But they got me a desk. It’s a smaller desk — we joke about it being like a junior teacher’s desk, and I’ll get my big teacher desk after a couple of years.”

She also had to share a room with Dr. Kevin Doyle, a history teacher, some of the time. This tested her nerves because she had to teach in front of two very smart individuals, and if she came up with a new lesson plan she had to roll it out with two experienced teachers watching.

She eventually realized that having them there was helpful because they could give her feedback.

“Ms. Rousseau and Dr. Doyle are two very different people as well,” she said. “So they have two very different viewpoints, and they can kind of help point me in certain directions for the class. That’s actually really helpful.”

Ms. Rousseau has seen her blossom as a teacher. “So much growth over the year,” Ms. Rousseau said. “She’s the most adept teacher I’ve ever seen. She’s amazing.”

Ms. McKinley has quickly acquired a reputation as a tough grader.

“I am a tough grader because I had teachers who were tough graders,” she said. “I think it would be doing a disservice to sugarcoat it. When you get to college, no one’s going to sugarcoat it there. In the end, hopefully I’m also giving enough feedback that you can learn from that tough grading and move forward next time.”

She has already built a strong rapport with students, thanks to creative lessons and exercises and even friendly teasing over the best way to drink coffee.

“Ms. McKinley has created a safe environment for students to come to her, not only about school, but about other concerns they have,” junior Salma Menkari said. “She’s an amazing person who really cares about all of her students and wants the best for them.”

Salma’s thoughts were echoed by Sadie Belcourt (“She always tries to make learning fun”) and Emily Pollard (“It’s obvious that she’s very kind and she cares about everyone around her”).

At the start of the year, Ms. McKinley had absolutely no idea how hectic, interesting, exciting, and challenging it would prove to be for her. But she looked forward to learning the answers — with classes and students she could truly call her own.

Destiny has run its course, leaving Ms. McKinley with a summer to soak it all in and reflect before she does it all over again.

She is looking forward to relaxing, maybe fostering a dog, continuing to teach people how to kickbox, and finding some good beach reads.

“Kickboxing, dogs, and books — that’s pretty much me in a nutshell.”