TO: Maine teachers

FROM: A not-so-secret admirer

RE: Credit where credit is due

 

Maybe this should go without saying. Or maybe, as thousands of you reopen your classrooms all over Maine this week, it isn’t said nearly enough.

Welcome back.

I know it’s been an unpleasant summer, at least when it comes to the rhetoric raining down on Maine’s public education system.

Many of us winced when Gov. Paul LePage, without so much as a shred of evidence, claimed in July that Maine students are “looked down upon” by colleges nationwide. And for that, of course, he blamed all of you.

We cringed when LePage told members of the fledgling Charter School Commission, after they refused to rubber-stamp every new charter school application that came down the pike, to resign en masse if they were “not up to meeting the state’s expectations.”

And truth be told, a few of us quietly applauded when Brunswick Superintendent Paul Perzanoski, in a late-summer “back to school” letter to his staff, lamented that recently passed anti-bullying legislation “failed to include the Blaine House.”

At the same time, he decried the “public school bashing” that for decades has laid a laundry list of societal woes at the doorstep of each of your classrooms.

Perzanoski, as you know, has since apologized for expressing his personal political views on school district stationery, so there’s nothing to be gained by rehashing it all here.

Still, it got me thinking: What’s it like these days to be at the epicenter of this whole “blame it on the schools” movement? And by extension, why in the world would anyone choose to be a public school teacher these days?

So I drove up to Brunswick late last week — not to see Perzanoski, but to sit down with three of his teachers at the Robert P.T. Coffin Elementary School.

All three are in their first or second year of teaching. And all three teach first grade — where education, as simple as it may look from a distance, isn’t.

I met Eric Funderburk. He’s 36 and was moving up the corporate ladder with Universal Records in New York City when he looked himself in the mirror a few years ago and asked, “Am I really making a difference here?”

After some serious soul-searching, Funderburk decided he wasn’t. So he enrolled in a two-year master’s program (while still working full time), moved to Brunswick (where he and his wife have family) and got his teaching certificate (which he used last year in Lewiston before landing his coveted job in Brunswick).

“It’s more planning than you can imagine,” Funderburk told me as we toured his new classroom. “It’s not high school or middle school — you don’t teach the same classes four or five times a day. You’re with these students just about the whole day — you’re probably with them more than their parents are going to be with them during the school year.”

A quick note about Funderburk’s classroom: It’s one of those temporary outbuildings that somewhere along the way became permanent — he’s positioned his desk in front of the space heater to keep his pupils out of harm’s way.

As Funderburk put it while he surveyed the relatively cramped quarters, “I have a space issue.”

No matter. With an assist from his sister-in-law, who stages houses for a living, Funderburk spent much of August transforming the once-cluttered space into a warm, welcoming launch pad for 17 young innocents whose 12-year journey through public education starts right here, right now.

Yes, Funderburk said, he’s heard all the trash talk about teachers. But to be honest, he’s too busy to take it personally.

“If you have confidence in yourself and your teaching, you shouldn’t feel like that rhetoric is aimed at you,” he said. Besides, wherever he looks, all he sees are “teachers who are passionate, who care about their students.”

A few doors down, I met Meredith Sciacca. She’s 40, the mother of two Brunswick High School students, and started teaching full time only last year because … why?

“It’s in my heart,” Sciacca replied with a smile. “There’s absolutely nothing else I would want to be doing.”

Sciacca’s classroom, part of the main building, is a study in innovation: She got a bunch of old tennis balls from the school custodian and put them on the feet of each chair “so you don’t have the screeching chairs all day long.”

In recent weeks, Sciacca’s husband installed a large, sheet-metal “word work” board complete with magnetic words. She paid for the sheet metal.

Her husband also built a small wooden stage so kids could reach the white board — he even stenciled the entire alphabet across the front. Sciacca paid for those materials, too.

“Teachers are good at scrounging,” Sciacca noted. “Everybody buys things out of their own pocket. Without a doubt.”

Then there’s Ashley Martin. She’s 25, fresh out of the University of Southern Maine and looked forward to welcoming her first class this week with a plush new rug that she bought out of her own pocket because, well, isn’t that what teachers are expected to do?

Some people have warned Martin that a truly good teacher takes control of a new class by never cracking a smile for at least the first week of school. She thinks that’s nuts.

“You model what it is to be respectful — and that’s not standing up there and keeping a straight face and telling them what to do,” Martin said. “I want them to feel like they’re part of something and that everyone is respected and valued. And that includes me. I want us all to feel that way about each other.”

I could write a book about the complex teaching strategies — from “writer’s workshop” to “math centers” to “anchor charts” — that go into the anything-but-simple challenge of turning a gaggle of 6-year-olds into engaged and enlightened students.

I should also note that for all their painstaking preparation, these three educators lay awake many a recent night worrying — not about how the world sees them, but how best to connect, one by one, with the young minds they will shape over the next nine months.

Yet even for the rookie Martin, the butterflies are blanketed by “pure excitement to see the kids coming.”

Pure excitement. Imagine that.

As I left Coffin Elementary School late last week, I couldn’t help but picture all of you teachers, from Kittery to Fort Kent, busily rolling out your welcome mats to Maine’s future.

And I made a quiet wish that even as you swallow your jitters, memorize new names and faces, tweak your lesson plans and, above all, take a deep breath, you’ll find a way to tune out the scapegoating, the finger-pointing and the endless babble from those who know all about today’s classroom without ever having set foot in one.

Many of us — more than you may realize — know that what you teachers do, day in and day out, is nothing short of heroic.

And for that, it’s high time Maine said thank you.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com