September 7, 2012

Bill Nemitz: It's high time that Maine said thanks to its teachers

By Bill Nemitz

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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