Bree Candland of Bath, a social studies teacher at Mt. Ararat High School, has been named Sagadahoc County Teacher of the Year for 2020. Courtesy Bree Candland

TOPSHAM — Bree Candland may have had any huge 40th birthday plans quashed this month thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but she still received a special surprise: the news that she’d been named Sagadahoc County’s 2020 teacher of the year.

It was particularly nice, the Mt. Ararat High School social studies teacher said, to learn she was the only one among the 16 county honorees to be nominated by a student.

“My relationship with my students is the most important thing,” Candland said.

Candland praised the “wonderful” and “committed” colleagues with whom she’s worked since 2001, soon after graduating from Bowdoin College in Brunswick. But she was moved by “the idea that a student nominated me, that they know who I am at my core.”

Mt. Ararat senior Madigan Saunders, who had Candland as a teacher her freshman year, was that student.

Noting Candland’s “sarcastic nature” and “warm and glowing personality (that) always welcomes everyone into her room,” Saunders said, “it’s kind of like she’s almost a student, in a way.”

As she continued through high school, Saunders enjoyed stopping back into Candland’s classroom.

“I would always just listen and remember everything that she taught me; it just resonated with me,” she recalled. “… I never forgot what she taught. She was always a friend to me.”

The fact that a student’s nomination is what is inspiring Candland to tackle the intensive work ahead “just speaks to her personality even more,” Saunders said. “She would do anything for us kids.”

Candland, who didn’t realize she wanted to be a teacher until she fell in love with it at Bowdoin, imparts world religions and governments to freshmen, economics and American foreign policy to sophomores, and advanced placement U.S. government to seniors. She has also spent 15 years as a class advisor, served as a student senate advisor and accompanied students on school trips abroad to locales like Costa Rica, Greece, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Teenagers are “so smart and they ask such good questions,” Candland said. Guiding them “on a path that’s going to help them be successful, and contribute to the world that they live in … (is) such a powerful gift that they give me. So it keeps me motivated to stay in the classroom with them.”

Trying to support students who don’t want a teacher’s help can be challenging, she said. Given today’s social media technology, “kids are so connected all the time. They never have a break from the things that are hurting them in their lives.”

Bullying and mental health issues are prevalent these days and teaching is “only one part of what you’re doing in the classroom,” Candland said. She notices if a student is wearing the same clothes every day in a given week or hasn’t been eating, leading her to bring snacks to class. Maybe a student is being particularly resistant and rude to her because of something going on at home.

“Those are really hard things to juggle in the classroom,” Candland said. “You’re not a person just delivering content, you’re a person taking care of a whole child.”

Adapting her teaching style to remote learning in the wake of the pandemic presents its own challenges, too.

“It’s just night-and-day different,” Candland said. “Posting a couple assignments a week on Google Classroom and being available by email and offering to do Google Meets with kids, it’s so different than having 15 or 20 young people in a room asking good questions, and their energy and their goofiness. … Nobody goes into teaching because they want to look at a screen.”

Still, that screen can offer its good points, too.

Seeing 16 of her teens recently for a student government meeting held via video, the most she’d had altogether at once since in-person classrooms were closed in mid-March, was “so lovely,” Candland said. “I miss my kids so much, I could cry.”

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