Brooke Teller started teaching when she was just a teenager, instructing swimmers during the summers.

That innate interest, coupled with a passion for science sparked by her high school biology teacher, has landed her as Cumberland County’s Teacher of the Year, and a finalist for the statewide award.

“I’m always trying to tell stories,” said Teller, a chemistry teacher at Casco Bay High School. “Today we were launching soda bottle rockets and I told them they were pressurized to 65 pounds per square inch. That didn’t mean much, but when I said that’s about twice what a (car) tire has for pressure, they got it.”

That teaching method is tied directly to why she was nominated for the honor.

“She has contagious enthusiasm for teaching high school science and is truly dedicated to her students,” said Sarah Mills, who wrote the nomination letter. Mills and Teller are both Smith College alumnae and work together to encourage Maine students to go to Smith.

“She’ll find ways to incorporate cooking, or the making of videos, to demonstrate principles of science, which engages students in learning in different ways beyond the requisite memorization of formulas. This makes learning fun and relevant,” Mills wrote. “Her caring for each student shows in the way she regularly checks in with them, always willing to spend extra time whether about class work or broader issues of school or home.”

Teller has taught at Casco Bay High School for 10 years, and previously at two schools in Connecticut. All three schools have innovative approaches to teaching – whether as a magnet school or the expeditionary learning model at Casco that emphasizes learning through project-based inquiry.

“I’ve been part of a lot of innovative places (where) you are building the plane as you fly it, that’s why I was drawn to Casco,” she said. “I didn’t need things to be the same every day to feel comfortable.”

“I’ve never used a textbook” at Casco, Teller said. Instead, she draws up plans from her own experience, and uses online tools to work with the students. She is a particular fan of the math of chemistry, or stoichiometry, and she describes talking through difficult topics repeatedly and in different ways to make sure her students understand the concept. She also led a course where juniors studied the chemistry of climate change and produced newscasts for local fifth-graders.

“I think all my students know I’m willing to do what it takes so they’ll understand the material,” she said.

And she makes it clear science is fun, too. Above her desk, buttons read “We are Crew” – a reference to the family-like “crews” at the school, and “Frack no” and “Nerds have more fun.” Next to that is her handmade sign she carried in the science march in Portland in April, one side reading “Think like a proton! Be positive!”

Her enthusiasm for hands-on teaching earned her the nickname “Sparkles” a few years back. On the first day of chemistry class, in a new lab, she handed out sparklers. Because, yes, they’re fun, but it’s also a lesson in how heated oxidizers produce oxygen and how decomposing gases forcibly eject bits of the powdered metal.

Only Teller didn’t realize that the brand-new lab had some brand-new – and far more sensitive – fire alarms. So, off went the fire alarms, along with a full building evacuation and visit from the fire department. Some firefighters even added happy and sad firefighter stick figures to the whiteboard in her classroom, which spelled out the “before”and “after” chemistry of the Great Sparkler Experiment.

“At the end of the year, I got an award for the ‘biggest oops’ of the year,” she said with a laugh. “I graciously accepted it – I think they knew I would take it as intended. And I no longer light sparklers on the first day of class. We light glow sticks instead.”

In addition to teaching, Teller is the juniors’ team leader, the STEM endorsement coordinator at the school, serves on the building steering committee and has been the graduation coordinator. Later this year, she will teaching a new chemistry of Mars course with University of Southern Maine.

Teller has a bachelor of arts degree in biology from Smith and a master’s in biology and certification in education leadership from Central Connecticut State University.

Teller said she’s grateful for the Teacher of the Year nomination, which requires a lot of self-reflection and articulation about education and teaching. It’s something that she’d hope all her fellow teachers, and others, could experience.

“I’m learning a lot. A lot about myself,” she said. “I’m in the spotlight, but everyone deserves that spotlight at some point in their career.”

Each county winner will submit a video showcasing their classroom practices before the field is narrowed to eight this week. After a portfolio review and presentations to the selection panel, the field will be narrowed to three.

In October, after a school site visit and interview, the state’s top teacher will be announced.

The Maine Teacher of the Year is a program of the Maine Department of Education in conjunction with Educate Maine, an education advocacy organization based in Portland.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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Twitter: noelinmaine