By Amelia Tarallo
Hometown Weekly Staff
It isn’t a shock to anyone who knows her that Marissa Gumas, a seventh grade math teacher at Blake Middle School, is one of the finalists for Massachusetts’ 2020 Teacher of the Year award.
Anyone who walks into Gumas’ classroom will immediately be struck by the colorfulness of the space. Most of the beige walls have been covered with posters, popping with all the colors of the rainbow. Her white board is covered with pastel flashcards hanging on magnetic hooks and folders for break-time worksheets. A closet in the back of the room is decorated with motivational posters, encouraging students to “Dare to Try” and “Challenge yourself.” On top of the closet are cardboard creatures that were created by students for one of her annual math projects. Everything in the room seems to have been placed by Gumas as a way to reward, motivate, or teach her students.
For their part, the students themselves all seem to love her; they greet her enthusiastically when she walks in at the end of her class, having finished a professional day that she spent away from her students.
Marissa Gumas was meant to be a teacher. Her maiden name, Daskalakis, means teacher. “So I was destined for this,” she confirms. “I was eight, carrying a blackboard around and getting all the neighborhood kids together so I could teach them.” However, she didn’t initially anticipate becoming a middle school math teacher. While studying in college, Gumas focused on becoming an elementary school teacher and double majored in elementary education and biology.
Despite her certainty in being a teacher, the road to teaching was not always an easy one. Many people told Gumas to do something else. “Everyone always wanted to discourage me. But nobody could ever do that, because that’s just what I always wanted to be,” she says. “I don’t think there’s too many people in this world who know their whole life what they want to be and they still want to do it.”
After graduating high school, Gumas attended Arcadia University, where she pursued her degree in education. As she prepared to graduate, the U.S. entered a national recession. “I graduated from college in 1980 and around that time there were no teaching jobs, so they made us, in our sophomore year, sign off that we knew we were going into a field where we probably wouldn’t get a job,” says Gumas. “And I didn’t care, ‘cause that’s what I wanted to do.” After graduating, Gumas started teaching in Pennsylvania, where she was seventh grade math, English, and social studies teacher. It was there that she discovered her love of teaching math. “So from that year on, I’ve taught math.”
Since starting her teaching career, Gumas has taught in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. She even spent six years teaching in Singapore. For two years, she taught in math in Walpole. Gumas came to Medfield in 2001, where she been teaching ever since.
A parent of a student that Gumas taught many years prior nominated her for the award. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, because it involved a lot of writing,” said Gumas with a laugh. “But I decided with a lot of encouragement from my family.” In order to move on with her nomination, Gumas was required to write four essays. She earned a spot among the top 11 finalists and continued with phone interviews. Following that round, Gumas was visited by a team from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). The DESE team passed Gumas to the next round, which required an in-person interview.
Gumas has learned exactly what makes a great teacher in her 39 years on the job. To her, it means more than the curriculum. “Always being fair. Always being someone the kids can count on, so they know that every day, they’re going to see someone [around whom] they feel safe, that they knows cares about them,” details Gumas. “The actual material and content that you’re teaching isn’t as important as the relationship you are building with your kids, because they will learn if you build the right relationship.”
Gumas has become famous amongst her students for providing rewards and fun games to motivate them. Previous students recall how she often handed out candy, using Skittles as a way to teach probability. “I’m a believer of incentives,” she says with a laugh.
Now, her students take part in Gumas Crush, a game created by their math teacher. Students get a board at the beginning of the year and they earn marble stickers throughout the year. When a student has earned enough marble stickers, Gumas has them go to her prize closet and pick out a reward.
Gumas’ love of teaching reaches past her own career in Medfield. “I wish that every kid everywhere had the same access to a good education. If I could change that, I would,” she says. “I just think that that’s something every person should have access to. The same education.”
Her decades of experience, her approach to teaching, and her interest in her students’ happiness make Marissa Gumas one of the most beloved and valuable teachers in Medfield.
Every day, students who come into her classroom leave knowing that they have a teacher they can count on.