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How Maine teachers are adapting to a new normal

Maine teachers said they're excited for the 2022-2023 school year, but they're facing big staffing shortages, parental criticism, and a learning gap from COVID.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In mid-August, third-grade teacher Hillary Bellefleur is busy organizing her classroom at Leroy Smith School in Winterport. Soon, her tenth class of students will be sitting in the tiny desk chairs and using a whiteboard that hasn't been touched since the beginning of summer. For her, back-to-school season is always exciting. But this year, there's some extra energy. 

"When a child walks through these doors, I want the absolute best for them. I think it’s really important to show them that their dreams can come true here in the state of Maine. Let’s find out what they’re interested in," Bellefleur said.

For Bellefleur, her dreams did come true. She grew up in nearby Frankfort in the same school district and said she always wanted to become Ms. Frizzle, the teacher in the "Magic School Bus" series who had curly, bright red hair and a passion for learning.

"I love that here, I feel comfortable dressing up in a t-rex costume while we’re learning about fossils," Bellefleur said. "If I’m excited, I feel my students are excited, which makes learning fun every day."

Bellefleur is one of a number of teachers around Maine who will be returning to the profession this fall, but not all will be doing so. 

According to data from the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, 1,203 teachers, ed techs, and administrators terminated in 2021. That's the highest total in the Maine PERS records, which go back to 2015. For context, the median number of teaching professionals who leave before retirement annually is 713. So far in 2022, from January through August, 655 teaching professionals have left the field. 

Those numbers don't include teaching professionals who retired. 

In 2021, 821 teachers, ed techs, and administrators retired. Dolly Sullivan, the program director of Educate Maine, said data indicates 15.6 percent (or one in six) of teachers in Maine are older than 60 years old. In 1999, that number was 2 percent.

"We have to think about ways that we can remove obstacles," Sullivan said, regarding the staffing crisis. "We’re not going to reduce the rigor of becoming a teacher, obviously; but, there should be multiple pathways to becoming a teacher."

Sullivan said she thinks Maine needs to make education a top priority by diversifying the workforce, paying teachers more, allowing teachers to have leadership positions, and ensuring a student's zip code doesn't determine the quality of their education. 

"How are we going to get more people to enter the profession? How are we going to get career-changers? How do we encourage people to come to Maine to teach?" Sullivan said, regarding the questions Educate Maine is asking.

Pender Makin, commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, told NEWS CENTER Maine the exodus of teachers is a national problem that's affecting New England and Maine.

"I think that we’ve lost sight in some ways as a society of the daily miracle that is the public education system," Makin said. "It’s the thing that we promised and that we invest in together."

Makin said teachers are leaving for a number of reasons. One of them includes the cost of housing. Some teachers are leaving more rural areas, while others are leaving more urban areas because they can't afford to live where they teach. Makin said discourse among some community members about public education isn't helping, either. 

"We’ve narrowed the curriculum, the enriching joyful environments, the creativity and autonomy that educators and school leaders once were afforded," Makin said. "That has happened over the course of a couple decades now, but it seems to be hitting a crescendo, because now there are very pointed political attacks on America‘s public education system, and it’s echoing here on our own state."

Heather Whitaker, an alternative education teacher at Gorham Middle School, said she thinks the key to solving this problem is by re-strengthening the relationship between the classroom and the community.

"Public education is the bedrock of our democracy, of our citizenship," Whitaker said. "It is an equalizer. It is an equity piece. We need strong public schools that have public support because all of our students across the state, regardless of socioeconomic status, deserve the right for free public education, and that happens in our public schools."

Debra Susi, the visual performing arts department chair at Maine Central Institute, said better communication among parents and teachers will help students thrive, as they re-enter school after a couple of years interrupted by COVID-19. She said she plans to meet her students where they are and take everything day by day. 

"The learning gaps, the problems that we're having right now academically, socially, emotionally, I do believe with support, care, encouragement, just meeting the student where they are [that] those gaps are going to lessen," Susi said.

Susi said after 38 years of teaching, it's not the paycheck that keeps her walking through the doors every morning. It's the kids.

"I hope as a civilization, we can all get around to supporting our kids our students. I mean, they are our future," Susi said.

Makin said the Maine DOE does have some solutions to address the teaching shortage under the TeachMaine section of its website. Those include a set of strategies like recruitment and retention efforts; training, support, and mentorship for teachers; and diversifying the workforce. The Maine DOE also recognizes a Teacher of the Year to boost morale and is partnering with Live + Work in Maine to allow school districts to use the statewide job board. 

Whitaker said there are some basic things parents can do to help their kids prepare for learning. Some every-day suggestions include: 

  • Reading to your child
  • Grocery shopping and allowing your child to help with the budget
  • Cooking
  • Helping with chores
  • Going to fairs to get your child involved in Maine agriculture

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