MAINE, USA — Speak with any teacher, and they'll likely tell you that while they love what they do most days, it can sometimes be a thankless job. Teachers spend long hours in their classrooms with students every week for most of the year, and a lot of that work goes unrecognized by the rest of the community.
To help boost morale and allow teachers to be seen, the Maine Department of Education runs the Maine Teacher of the Year program, administered by Educate Maine. Every year, a teacher from each of Maine's 16 counties is selected as County Teacher of the Year. By mid-fall, one person from that cohort is selected as the Maine Teacher of the Year.
NEWS CENTER Maine introduced you to the 16 2023 Maine County Teachers of the Year in May. Here's a little bit more information about the four finalists for 2024 Maine Teacher of the Year.
Joshua Chard, 2023 Cumberland County Teacher of the Year
Joshua Chard, a second- and third-grade teacher at the East End Community School in Portland, wasn't always a star in the classroom. He said he was actually a problem child for a while growing up until fifth grade, when his strict but supportive teacher changed his trajectory.
"You have that handful of teachers who stick with you for your whole life," Chard said, noting she was one of his.
Chard said from then on, he knew he wanted to be a teacher to offer the same kind of support to other kids. It was a path that was meant to be. Chard has been teaching for three decades. Right now, he spends his day with 7- and 8-year-olds and then heads over to Deering High School in the after-school hours to teach drama.
"They are hilarious. They are resilient. They are inspiring, and they are insightful and brilliant," Chard said of his students.
Chard said the nomination for 2024 Maine Teacher of the Year means a lot to him, primarily because he feels honored and seen. He said teaching can sometimes be a lonely profession, but teachers play a huge and important role in the community.
"I get to teach in one of the most diverse elementary schools north of Boston," Chard said. "That is an amazing privilege and an awesome responsibility at the same time."
Edith Berger, 2023 Lincoln County Teacher of the Year
Edith Berger, a sixth-grade teacher at Miller School in Waldoboro, was working in a different field before becoming a teacher 18 years ago when she moved to Maine. She said she had been volunteering at the school where she now works, and her principal saw something in her.
"My principal said, ‘You’re good at this. You should tutor.’ ‘You’re good at this. You should sub.’ 'You’re good at this. You should long-term sub,'" Berger said.
Berger said she became a teacher "by accident" but has loved teaching social studies and exposing her students to life's issues. She said she has noticed problems among staff and students, like mental health challenges (made worse by the pandemic), and wants to bring that to light with her nomination for 2024 Maine Teacher of the Year.
"My feeling was gratitude. I was just overwhelmed with gratitude," Berger said of the honor.
Berger said a large part of her time working in education has been marked by getting involved in leadership projects throughout her school. She said it's something she hopes to do with her 2023 Lincoln County Teacher of the Year title for other, newer teachers to help get different perspectives to the table.
"This is something we’re doing for teachers all over Maine," Berger said.
Lacey Todd, Oxford County Teacher of the Year
Lacey Todd, a fifth-grade science teacher at Mountain Valley Middle School, has been teaching for nearly 20 years. She said she once thought she wanted to be a scientist and grew up playing teacher to her younger sister.
“I was always that odd kid that really loved bugs and reptiles and things that other girls really weren’t interested in," Todd said.
Todd said she enjoys teaching science because it isn't as regimented as other subjects. She said a big priority for her is acting as a role model for girls.
"I really try to emphasize that science is a career for anyone," Todd said.
Todd said her nomination for 2024 Maine Teacher of the Year has taken her out of her comfort zone by being public and doing interviews. She said it's a good example, though, for her students who may not initially see themselves getting involved in a difficult subject like science.
"I have a bulletin board on my wall over here that says, ‘What does a scientist look like?’ And I really try to feature people of all ages, races, genders, just so kids see themselves as scientists," Todd said.
Colleen Maker, Washington County Teacher of the Year
Colleen Maker is a high school biology, honors biology, and marine biology teacher at Washington Academy. For her, teaching is in her blood. She said her mother is a teacher, and she grew up watching her mother's dedication to the profession.
"[My mother] has three daughters, and all three of us are in education," Maker said.
Maker said being nominated for 2024 Maine Teacher of the Year is an "incredible honor," but she sees the title going far beyond just herself.
"Giving teachers a platform to elevate their voices, share their passion and commitment is really important," Maker said.
Maker said she wants to use her position as Washington County Teacher of the Year to talk about the importance of connecting students to the community and recognizing how social, emotional, and physical needs play into education.
She said she also wants to boost teachers statewide.
“There’s a lot of incredible learning and planning and so many dynamic lessons happening within communities all across the state of Maine," Maker said.
Maker said if she ever decided to change careers, she would try to do a job that helps to support teachers, since she recognizes how important they are to our community. That idea, though, might be much farther down the line,
"I can’t imagine doing anything else. I mean, I get to be part of students’ lives," Maker said.
The 2023 County Teachers of the Year have launched an initiative called #LoveMaineSchools, designed to bring a spotlight to the positive educational work happening across our state. You can find out how to submit your stories here.