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Howard-Donlin takes up teaching position in hometown

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Howard-Donlin takes up teaching position in hometown

Chemistry teacher Matthew Howard-Donlin leaves for Shepherd Hill Regional High School on Monday.

Chemistry teacher Matthew Howard-Donlin leaves for Shepherd Hill Regional High School on Monday.

Varshini Ramanathan

Chemistry teacher Matthew Howard-Donlin leaves for Shepherd Hill Regional High School on Monday.

Varshini Ramanathan

Varshini Ramanathan

Chemistry teacher Matthew Howard-Donlin leaves for Shepherd Hill Regional High School on Monday.

Varshini Ramanathan, Editor-in-Chief

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Two weeks into the school year, chemistry teacher Matthew Howard-Donlin made the decision to leave Westford Academy after a position opened in August in his hometown, Dudley. The second chemistry teacher to be replaced in as many years, Howard-Donlin will be succeeded by Catherine Erickson, a teaching veteran who has worked in schools across the country.

Howard-Donlin completed his last day at Westford Academy last Thursday, September 13, after eight years at the school, and begins as a chemistry and environmental science teacher at Shepherd Hill Regional High School on September 17.

The commute from Dudley to Westford is approximately one hour, a distance that wore on Howard-Donlin over the years. He joked that car dealers would call him expecting to him have 70,000 miles on his car and find that he clocked 180,000 annually.

However, the problem was exacerbated when Howard-Donlin’s daughter Evelyn began school this fall. As Howard-Donlin’s wife also works far from home, it became apparent last spring that something would have to change to ensure their daughter’s safety.

“It’s very stressful. Because I know that one accident on my way home and all of a sudden, I’m panicking, like, how am I going to get home? What am I going to do with my five-year-old daughter standing in the middle of the road by herself?” Howard-Donlin said.

Howard-Donlin began to consider changing schools to move closer to home last April, but he did not anticipate moving for another two or three years, as teaching positions rarely open in central Massachusetts. One week before school started, a one-year substitute position opened at Shepherd Hill. When Howard-Donlin heard that the teacher had had complications from open-heart surgery and was most likely not returning, he applied for an interview.

“This is a huge risk, because I could be looking for a job again in another six months,” he said. 

From there, things fell into place one after another. Though there was an issue with Howard-Donlin’s salary, as a one-year substitute typically gets an entry-level pay, the superintendent pulled together an emergency school committee meeting in order to pay him for his 18 years of experience, notifying him of the approval as school started on August 29.

“I certainly wouldn’t have left here the way I have for any other school. It was just because it’s a special place, a really special circumstance, that just kind of fell in my lap,” he said. “It’s something that I don’t think is right, but you have to take care of family first.” 

The timing was tough; Science Curriculum Coordinator Jenny Kravitz and Principal Jim Antonelli scrambled to find a teacher on short notice. They were lucky to find one in just two weeks, partially because chemistry teachers are in high demand.

Luckily, Westford Academy’s strong reputation has always made it easier to find quality educators. Kravitz was extremely impressed with Erickson’s thirty-plus years of experience, strong knowledge of the subject, and attitude towards teaching.

While Erickson and Howard-Donlin have very different personalities, they both value strong relationships with students. Howard-Donlin has never taught with PowerPoints because he believes it is important to teach face-to-face with his students, and has coached lacrosse and soccer teams in order to be a full part of the community.

“[It’s important] to be willing to be kind, being willing to open my heart to the situation or to the student and take it from that angle,” Erickson said. 

At the end of the day, things have worked out in a way that Howard-Donlin had never imagined, but he is no stranger to life taking him in strange and unexpected directions. It is, in fact, how he ended up as a teacher in the first place: a year out of college, Howard-Donlin was working part-time as a percussion teacher in Millbury when a parent advised him to try teaching as a career.

“[At the time] I didn’t have any prospects, I’d never even considered [teaching], and so I said ‘oh, what the hell’, and tried it,” Howard-Donlin said.

With a major in Physical and Cultural Geography and no teaching experience, he took the risk and began teaching all subjects at Abbey Kelley Foster Charter Public School. He also taught for three years at Sutton High School before moving to Westford Academy, earning his teacher’s license along the way.

“I told all of his students  that they were really lucky because they’ve started the year with a phenomenal teacher, and they’re going to continue to end the year with another exceptional educator,” Kravitz said. 

Howard-Donlin’s career has been shaped by a combination of circumstance, necessity, and risk-taking, leading him on a roundabout path to where he is today. Watching students at Westford Academy obsess over grades and futures, he reflects that in the long term, high school is only important to open pathways and to learn to work hard. What happens after that, he says, is limitless.

“Even if right now, if I decided I wanted to do something else, I could do it. I mean, we don’t have the lifespan of Brave New World, but there’s not really an end,” he said. 

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About the Contributor
Varshini Ramanathan, Editor-in-Chief

I am a WA senior who has been on the Ghostwriter staff since freshman year, first as a staff writer, then as Sports Editor, then as Co-Managing Editor,...

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