In the last two decades as an educator in Greenport, Melanie Douglass has mentored hundreds of high school students. Even if they weren’t ‘hers,’ per se, she’d avail herself to offer advice, extra help, or even just a joke to cheer someone up.
Ms. Douglass, who is certified in both special education and earth science, is described by high school principal Gary Kalish as “student-centered.”
“She’s the first faculty member in the building and the last to leave,” Mr. Kalish said recently. “She sees each student as an individual with unique interests and personalities.”
From her immense Porter pride to staying after the last bell to help a struggling student, Ms. Douglass, though soft-spoken, is “indefatigable” when it comes to the success of her students, Mr. Kalish said.
For her empathy and dedication to the students in Greenport, Melanie Douglass is the Suffolk Times’ 2021 Educator of the Year.
“Oftentimes, students with special needs experience unique challenges,” Mr. Kalish said. “Ms. Douglass’ approach allays many of these sources of anxiety for both students and families.”
She may have a special touch when it comes to teaching special needs, but Mr. Kalish said she’s also known for her expertise in the sciences.
That may be because when she isn’t in her classroom, she’s likely out on the waters of the Peconic Bay in a pink-bottomed boat, running the Peconic Pearls oyster company she co-owns with Karen Rivara.
The two first met in the early 2000s when Ms. Douglass came to work for Ms. Rivara’s oyster farm. She had a degree in maritime operations but was seeking a change of pace and worked alongside Ms. Rivara while she went back to school for a teaching degree.
“She’s piloted giant vessels and worked in mariculture tech. She has quite a diverse skill set, which is why she’s such a good teacher,” Ms. Rivara said.
Since launching their business in 2009, it’s not uncommon to see Ms. Douglass out in the early morning, tending to the cages and maintaining their crop, juggling both teaching and farming.
“A lot of times, she’s out there by herself. It’s a lot of work,” Ms. Rivara said. “And she’s really good at it.”
Fellow Greenport teacher Carolyn Burke considers Ms. Douglass to be family and is inspired by her connections to students.
“From the start, I could see that she always sees the good in students,” Ms. Burke said, admitting that sometimes, that isn’t always easy. “There’s no judgment. She gives everyone a chance.”
Perhaps it comes with the territory of teaching special education, but Ms. Douglass is a champion for the underdog; students who maybe aren’t in the limelight for their achievements.
“She’ll have students email her from college if they’re struggling or are just looking to come back and visit,” said Cindy Agosta, another high school teacher. “She was very quiet in school, so I think she looks at those kids and has a special bond.”
Ms. Agosta first met Ms. Douglass as an elementary student in Oysterponds. Ms. Douglass was a year behind her, graduating from Greenport in 1993.
Her Porter pride may come naturally, but she’s also happy to pass it on to teachers new to the district.
“Greenport is a very community-driven place, so when it came to understanding the culture of Greenport, I learned it all from Melanie,” said Tom O’Leary, a former Greenport English as a new language teacher who now works in Westhampton Beach. “She inspired me to be more active in those little things and traditions.”
For several years, Ms. Douglass served as the junior class adviser, a massive undertaking since it includes planning a milestone for many upperclassmen: the prom.
Planning includes fundraising for the event, booking a venue, transportation, decorating and even helping collect for a prom dress drive.
“She’s always tried to keep the cost of prom down so everyone can attend,” Ms. Agosta said. “She’s very big on making sure it’s attainable for all students, not just kids that may have money.”
Inequity among students became more evident at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, as districts went hybrid and worried if students’ other needs were met.
“You had to be very adaptable,” Ms. Agosta said. “We all did the best we could over our Google platform, but if you had to connect with a kid over Facebook or Instagram, we did that.”
Ms. Douglass was one of many teachers who volunteered to distribute meals, Chromebook laptops and even dropping off chargers to kids in their mailboxes.
“She has a love of Greenport like no other,” Ms. Agosta said. “She calls these kids her children — she doesn’t have children — and is the most generous person I know with her time.”
Her colleagues agreed that at times, her selflessness and hard work may go unnoticed.
“She likes to be out of the spotlight,” Ms. Burke said. “A simple ‘thank you’ for her goes a long way.”
2020: Dennis Deerkoski
2019: Christine Schade
2018: Rosemary McGoey
2017: Sarah Benjamin
2016: Emily Gundersen
2015: John Roslak
2014: Phillip ‘Skip’ Munisteri
2013: Al Edwards
2012: Daniel Goldfarb
2011: Major William Grigonis
2010: Jean Dempsey
2009: Robert Feger
2008: Charles Kozora
2007: Kathy Williams
2006: Dr. Stuart Rachlin
2005: Mattituck Fund for Students
2004: Ron McEvoy
2003: Chris Gallagher
2002: Brigitte Gibbons
2001: Barbara Ackerman
2000: Ruth Yoskovich
1999: Tom Brennan
1998: Peggy Dickerson
1997: Elizabeth Goldsmith
1996: Lee Ellwood
1995: Linda Gates
1994: Poppy Johnson
1993: Peggy Murphy
1992: Patricia Wall
1991: Charles Nephew
1990: Dennis Claire
1989: Bruno Brauner
1988: Winifred Billard
1987: Jim Christy