Teacher

Olivia Macaulay, history teacher at Glendale High School, is the Glendale Unified School District's Teacher of the Year. (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer / October 10, 2012)

Glendale Unified’s Teacher of the Year doesn’t really understand why she won the honor.

“I don’t see myself as being an outstanding teacher,” said Olivia Macaulay, who learned of the honor earlier this month.

During a recent day in her Glendale High classroom, Macaulay’s U.S. history students dressed up as Founding Fathers and hashed out how much power the U.S. government should have and where the capital should be located. On other days, they’ve represented various states trying to pass legislation.

“I think the most powerful learning is when kids ‘do,’” she said. “They’re going to remember dressing up in a frilly costume and wearing a wig.”

Macaulay, 58, lives by her own words. Since teaching history at Glendale High for the past 10 years, she has traveled on Fulbright grants that have taken her to Jordan and Syria, where she explored archaeological ruins, and to the East Coast, where she studied under the renowned U.S. historian Eric Foner, whose books she devours.

One of her most thrilling excursions was when she oversaw eight Glendale students in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the Junior G8 Summit.

But the Teacher of the Year didn’t set out to become a teacher. In high school, Macaulay’s dream was to play violin in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At 17, after her father’s work transferred her family to Rome, she played violin for the conservatory of music there and then for the conservatory in Athens.

She returned to California with a psychology degree and worked in a school’s mental hospital ward. That’s when she fell in love with teaching, and for 22 years, she taught special education.

Her other reputation is in her student approach.

“Each kid deserves to be treated with honor, respect and dignity,” Macaulay said. “If they misbehave, or do something inappropriate, I think they are doing the best they can. They didn’t know to do differently, so my job is to teach them there’s a different way.”

Glendale Unified history curriculum specialist Nancy Witt said she first met Macaulay at Glendale High.

“She’s a really good listener,” Witt said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a student or a colleague — she’s very easy to talk to.”

Witt said Macaulay’s students are entirely absorbed by their teacher.

“She cares about their whole being,” Witt said. “Not just how they do in her U.S. history classes.”

That’s an assessment Macaulay may agree to.

“I’m not a spectacular teacher, but I think I’m nice. I think that means something to kids,” she said.

Follow Kelly on Twitter @kellymcorrigan.