“I’m there to direct the plays, but I’m really just there to create a home for these kids and myself and help them feel like they have a place to belong.”


Maralynn Markano

Michael Ortin walked into his sophomore year at Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wisconsin feeling as he usually did at the start of the school year: like he didn’t belong. 

Ortin described himself as “the nerd,” “the geek” and “the weird one” in his grade. It wasn’t until he auditioned for the school drama department’s production of “Les Misérables” in November 2021 that things started to change for him.  

His deep love of theater began to bloom – which, up until that point, he had never truly tapped into. He began to see a clearer picture of who he was, what he had to offer, and the future he wanted for himself. He found a group of fellow drama enthusiasts whose interests aligned with his.  In theater, he felt less alone.

He credits Maralynn Markano, the director of the Drama Department, with making that possible for him as well as countless other students at the school. 

“She seems to be able to do that with every student who comes into the theater feeling skeptical or uneasy,” Michael said of Markano. “She welcomes every student with open arms.”

“I am doing the job I always wanted to do."


Maralynn Markano

Markano has been teaching at Arrowhead for 24 years. When she first started in 1999, there was no theater program. Markano took it upon herself to create one in her spare time.

“I am doing the job that I always wanted to do,” said Markano, who – in addition to directing school plays and managing the stage crew – teaches English, Advanced Speech, and Acting at the high school. 

Growing up, Markano aspired to become an accountant – a prospect she now couldn’t fathom. When she got involved in her own high school’s theater program, though, her professional pursuits swiftly shifted. 

“That planted a seed in me that I loved theater and performing,” Markano recalled, noting that she wanted to share her passion for prose and drama with others — particularly young people. It was then that she decided she would become a drama and English teacher – inspired, in large part, by her own high school drama and English teacher, Sarah Joelson.  

“She was just this incredible woman,” Markano said. “I don’t even know how to put her into words.”

Through Joelson, “I was opened up to a new world by performing onstage, and she was so good at just supporting everybody and loving everybody for who they were, no matter what.” Markano works every day to ensure the Drama Department at Arrowhead embodies a similar spirit of inclusivity and encouragement that Joelson fostered.  “I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think about her,” Markano said, between tears. “I try to emulate her every day.” 

She also strives to emulate her high school English teacher, Gayle Richter, who instilled in her a love of language and literature – and a desire to teach it to others. Gayle Richter expanded Markano’s mind and made her want to do the same for her own students one day.

“She helped me see all the intricacies of a piece of literature, and how it really is like a little puzzle and a work of art,” Markano said. “She challenged me in a way that I had never been challenged.” 

Beyond helping her hone her reading, writing and comprehension capabilities, Markano said, her English teacher also strengthened her sense of self. “I really feel like she grew my confidence,” said Markano. “I wanted to be like her and teach.” 

Channeling the example set by both Sarah Joelson and Gayle Richter, Markano set out to become an educator – and she never looked back.

When Markano first arrived at Arrowhead High School, she wasn’t satisfied with solely teaching. Knowing the impact the drama department had on her own development as a high schooler, she was adamant about ensuring students at the school had the same opportunity available to them. 

“I’m there to direct the plays, but I’m really just there to create a home for these kids and myself and help them feel like they have a place to belong,” said Markano. “I do work hard at that.” 

Indeed, she often works evenings and weekends, dedicating much of her free time to ensuring every school production goes smoothly – and that every student is getting ample attention and support throughout the process.  

“I spend a lot of time researching the background on any given play, whether it’s costumes or set pieces or props, or even mannerisms and customs of the time,” Markano said. “I love learning and sharing it with my students.” 

After each production, she writes a handwritten card to every person involved in the play, “expressing how proud I am of them,” she said. “I love doing it, and I’m glad they appreciate it.”

“She is the teacher that wears her heart on her sleeve. Every building has one of those, and she’s that for us.”


Adam Kurth, Principal at Arrowhead High School

Students and staff recognize Markano’s unwavering commitment to her classes, the drama department and the school at large.

 

“Every time I’m in the building I seem to see her; she wants to make sure that everything she can do to help our kids is taken care of,” said Adam Kurth, the principal of Arrowhead High School. “She’s here all day, every day, and it’s not just being here; she is spending time that’s valuable with kids, helping them find themselves and helping them feel comfortable expressing themselves in their world of high school.” 

Kurth believes that Markano has a particularly strong propensity to bring shy students out of their shells. 

“She has a natural ability to build confidence and comfort in students that don’t necessarily have it,” he said. “The way she presents herself, her openness, her passion for language arts and theater and education in general makes it easy for students to find solace in working with her.” 

Plus, Kurth added, she is always available to lend her support. 

When it comes to her students, “if they need something, she’ll drop anything to make sure they’re taken care of,” he said. “She is the teacher that wears her heart on her sleeve. Every building has one of those, and she’s that for us.”

Eden Harrison, a senior student at the school, wholeheartedly agreed.

“There is not another teacher I know like Mrs. Markano,” she said, adding that she views Markano as “a true mentor and friend.” 

In addition to working overtime to support her students, Eden said, Markano possesses a rare spirit-lifting quality that makes learning English and drama a genuine delight.

Her optimism and sense of humor make a long rehearsal so much less stressful, and it only helps to further build the safe space she has made for all of us within the walls of the theater,” said Eden. “She treats all of us like one of her own and is never afraid to show it through an affectionate lecture or a warm hug.”

"She has changed so many lives."


Student Eden Harrison

Like her classmate Michael, Eden also felt lost when she first started high school. “I was extremely low on confidence in myself and who I was meant to be,” Eden explained. 

To keep herself busy, she joined the stage crew and auditioned for a drama department play. Before long, she felt her confidence climbing. She said Markano’s steadfast support and kindness helped her get to a better place personally.

“If ever there is a fleeting moment where one of her students is feeling down on themselves or their work, she’s there to rectify this with words of encouragement and compassion, and undoubtedly, every single one of her students feels even just a little bit better after talking with her,” Eden said. “She’s changed so many lives just by being her kind, hardworking, funny, and amazing self. I think we’re all better as actors and people because of her and her support.”

Over the years, many Arrowhead High School students have shared similar words of praise for Markano, who has been nominated by many students for the Honored National Teaching Award over several years. Markano is now the second teacher at the school to claim the title, which makes Arrowhead High School is now the first school in the country to have two Honorees. “We are incredibly proud,” said Adam Kurth. “Our teachers do good work.” 

Markano, for her part, is stunned and elated to be a recipient of the Honored National Teaching Award. “It’s really humbling. I’m honored,” she said. “I work hard because I love it.” 

“I count myself so lucky and so fortunate that I’ve been able to stay here and grow my program and be able to do what I love to do,” she continued. “I’m really proud of the program that I’ve built here over 24 years.” 

But it is the long-lasting bonds she has formed with her students, Markano said, that she is most proud of. The relationships are what she truly pours her heart into. 

“Being a teacher is what created this huge empathy in me. I didn’t even think I had that capacity. It started when I started teaching and developed more and more,” she said, adding that she still has strong ties to students she taught over 20 years ago. “I love that connection.” 

“You’re in the right place. Right here in the theater, with the rest of us.”


Maralynn Markano

Her goal going forward, she said, is to continue to create a welcoming environment for students – particularly those who are struggling to navigate the challenges of high school. 

“The drama department really attracts kids who feel like they’re out of place,” she said. “They come to me in fear.” 

“You’re in the right place,” Markano always reassures them. “Right here in the theater, with all the rest of us.” 

From there, with her constant compassion and care, her students blossom. And Markano beams with pride – first from backstage, then from afar as they move through life with far more confidence than they imagined possible.

“I just love these kids,” she said. “I think they feel it.”

Photos by Gary Porter

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