Maggie Ruff, a second-grade teacher at Hollis Elementary School, staples letters to the bulletin board outside her classroom on Aug. 8. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

It’s a tough time to be a teacher.

And as school districts across Maine prepare to welcome back students, they are once again struggling to find enough educators to replace the ones who are leaving the profession.

Those who remain in the classrooms are left to take on extra work that would have been shared among colleagues if vacancies could be filled – a situation that could lead to more teachers becoming burned out and changing careers. The shortage is not new, but the pandemic intensified it by making the job more challenging. COVID-19 protocols and school closures may be history, but learning loss, behavioral challenges, lagging pay and the increased politicization of education are all adding to the strain on teachers.

Still, a new generation of educators is taking up the challenge, hopeful that they can make a difference in students’ lives and figure out a way to afford to do what they love.

Five classroom teachers, most of whom are just starting their careers, spoke to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram about why they look forward to getting back into the classroom.

‘You have to really want to be a teacher’


Ruff cuts out pictures of ice cream cones for her bulletin board while setting up her classroom. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maggie Ruff laid out rows of picture books in a wooden display case as she prepared her Hollis Elementary School classroom earlier this month. Outside the door, she stapled the phrase, “Second grade is going to be sweet,” onto a pink bulletin board.


The 25-year-old has known she wanted to be a teacher since she was in kindergarten. Now she’s going into her fourth year as a full-time educator. She loves her job and is fascinated by how kids learn and absorb information. 

She’s especially passionate about teaching kids to read, something she struggled with as a young student.  

“I don’t want any kid to feel ashamed about their reading ability,” she said.  

Ruff is just as eager to continue learning as she is about teaching. On summer beach days when her friends are flipping through novels, she opts instead for textbooks about literacy, learning different models and skills to use to help her become a better teacher. 

“I don’t think you can ever stop learning as a teacher,” Ruff said. “You always have to be working hard for your kids.” 

Ruff said she hopes to remain motivated and positive as she moves forward in her career.  


“Kids can tell when this (school) isn’t the place you want to be most in the world,” she said. “I want to be present and work as hard as they do.” 

Teaching is exhausting, and the low pay – Ruff makes $43,000 a year – can be tough to live on. But Ruff, who wants to stay in education for the long haul, said it’s manageable for now because she’s young and that she’s hopeful teacher wages will go up.  

“You have to really want to be a teacher,” said Ruff, when asked what she would tell someone considering the profession. “You’ll be tired, but it’s worth it because those kids will always be part of your heart. There is so much celebration in teaching. I don’t think there is a more joyful place to be than a classroom.”  

‘I’m here for the kids’


Bulina Ahmad at East End Community School. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Bulina Ahmad has been an educator for decades, but she has only been a classroom teacher for three years. Ahmad, 57, joined the Portland school district 27 years ago as a high school education technician.

Ahmad has always wanted to be a teacher, she said. Her desire to teach was planted as a young child when her mother, who was a teacher in Ahmad’s native country of Afghanistan, would take her to visit her classroom. Upon moving to the United States at age 19, that aspiration only grew.

“When I moved to the United States, no one helped me learn English or answer my questions,” Ahmad said.


Ahmad said she wanted to be a teacher to provide young new Americans with the help and guidance she lacked when she first immigrated to America. Teaching in Portland will provide plenty of opportunity now that more than one-third of the city’s students have learned to speak other languages.

Many times over her years as an ed tech – a classroom support staff member who works alongside certified teachers – Ahmad considered going after her teaching certification. She even took some of the courses required for the certification at the University of Southern Maine. But ultimately she decided the cost of completing her teaching certification was too high, and she was concerned that even with the certification she wouldn’t get hired as a full-time teacher.

Although she sometimes felt stuck, she continued in her role as an ed tech.

“Every day I told myself, ‘I’m here for the kids’,” she said.

Then the pandemic hit. It brought challenges, as it did for everyone, but also opportunity. Stuck at home every day, Ahmad decided to head back to school. Portland’s school district helped pay for her courses, and she took out a loan to cover the rest. She went back to school full-time on top of her job as an ed tech and got her teaching certification within the year.

She is now about to start her fourth year as a kindergarten teacher at East End Community School, earning $62,000 a year.


Sitting in her large classroom, Ahmad pointed at a row of bouncy balls sitting on a high shelf. Those, she explained, are for students who struggle to sit still.

She pointed to a table that was lower than all the others. That one, she said, is for students who do better sitting directly on the ground.

Many of the students who walk through her door, she said, have been through a lot. Some have fled their home countries and made harrowing journeys to the United States. Some are homeless and hungry. Some are just nervous to be in kindergarten. The kids who walk into her classroom are there to learn, she said, but before they can learn, they need to be comfortable.

“I say be flexible,” she said. “Let them cry, let them be noisy, let them be themselves.”

Ahmad’s journey to becoming a certified teacher was a long one. But through decades in the Portland school district and a pandemic, her love for educating – and especially for supporting students who are refugees, asylum seekers, homeless, or who otherwise have challenging lives outside of school – has never waned.

“These kids are the foundation of our future,” she said. “That’s why I work as hard as I can.”


‘I got so much from my teachers’ 


Ryan Szantyr, a teacher at Poland Regional High School, in his classroom on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Being a rookie teacher last year came with its fair share of challenges for Ryan Szantyr. One of the most significant was managing students who were disrespectful to him, to other adults, and to one another.

But it didn’t deter him. And the 28-year-old is enthusiastically heading into his second year of teaching high school English.

In the back of his mind, Szantyr always thought he might want to be a teacher.

“I had so many teachers who had a profound effect on how I see the world and who I am – and the thought of being that for someone else felt like it would be gratifying,” Szantyr said. “I got so much from my teachers … the ability to provide that for someone else was something I wanted.”

Although Szantyr didn’t go directly into education after finishing his undergraduate degree – he tried his hand at editing textbooks for a few years – he ultimately found his way to teaching and landed a job at Poland Regional High School, where he was a student nearly a decade earlier.

Students being disrespectful – speaking out of turn, making snide comments to one another, and generally treating each other unkindly – was not a part of the job Szantyr anticipated.


“It was frustrating to feel like I was not succeeding to the degree I hoped I would,” he said.

But over time and with the help of colleagues and mentors, Szantyr started figuring it out.

“Some of the stuff they taught me was nuts and bolts, like how to have your desks arranged,” he said. “But the advice that was most helpful was to talk with students one-on-one.”

Szantyr started sitting down with students, explaining to them that he cared about their success and wanted them to do well in school and feel as if they were being heard.

“A lot of people feel like adults don’t respect them, so I wanted to make it explicit that I do, that I want them to succeed and I’m not just doing this to torture them,” he said.

In one conversation, Szantyr told the student that he enjoyed having him in his class. Immediately, Szantyr said, the student shrunk backward and looked at him incredulously.


“I could see that he genuinely thought I didn’t want him in my class, that he didn’t feel wanted or respected,” Szantyr said. “And if he didn’t feel welcome, then why would he try?”

That conversation was the start of a different relationship with that student, said Szantyr, who earns $42,761 a year.

What Szantyr strives for most as a teacher is to in some way expand the world of his students, he said.

“I think I was able to do that with some students,” he said. “The challenge I have for myself going forward is to expand that. How many students can I reach and connect with?”

‘Every day and every student is different’


Cody Tompkins teaches 7th and 8th graders in Woodland, near Caribou.

Cody Tompkins was working in human resources in 2020 and looking for change. The 29-year-old had long been interested in teaching, and the pandemic and teacher shortage offered him the perfect opportunity. He was able to get an emergency certification – a special permit often used when there is an educator shortage that allows teachers who are not licensed to teach in public school – and jump right into the classroom.

Tompkins initially went into business after graduating from UMaine Presque Isle. He enjoyed that work, but education is his passion, he said. He enjoys teaching kids to write, teaching them about the history of the United States, seeing them succeed, and serving as a role model, he said. He also appreciates the fun and challenging environment of teaching.


“Every day and every student is different,” he said. “It makes it challenging but also makes it fun.”

Tompkins makes around $43,000 a year teaching seventh and eighth-grade English and history at Woodland Consolidated School outside Caribou. He took a $23,000 pay cut to become a teacher.

He makes ends meet by farming – hay in the summer and straw in the fall.

With this supplemental income, Tompkins isn’t worried about himself financially. However, the low pay makes him concerned about the future of the education field.

“Inflation is high, and teachers’ wages are not keeping up. I can see how, if someone didn’t have a plan B or extra income, staying in education would be very hard,” he said. “It’s hard to afford to live today off what teachers make.”

Tompkins also said he’s concerned about the way people view education as a field. “The workload for teachers is a lot more than people think it would be,” he said. “People look at the number of days we work and think, ‘That must be easy,’ but so many things happen outside the classroom,” he said.


Grading papers, creating curriculums, communicating with parents, going to school events, and attending meetings and conferences are all part of the workload, Tompkins said.

“It’s a lot more time-consuming than people would believe it to be. Sometimes it’s viewed in the public eye as not that big of a time commitment, but it’s the direct opposite, in my opinion.”

Tompkins believes things are going to have to change in education. “Pay will have to continue to increase to entice people to stay,” he said. “It’s not all about money or anything, but you have to be able to pay your bills. It’s a full-time job, and having an extra job wouldn’t really make sense.”

Tompkins plans to stay in education.

“At the end of the day, I think, ‘What’s more important: Being able to make more money, or being able to really help shape a kid’s life in a better way?’ I’ve never had a job that I woke up and looked forward to going to every day. With teaching, I do. I look forward to seeing the kids, seeing the staff I work with. It’s just really great work.”

‘I couldn’t do anything else’


Suzanne Reynolds eagerly returned this month to prepare for the start of school at Machiasport’s Fort O’Brien School, where the 31-year-old is heading into her second year as a first and second-grade teacher.


“This is where I’m meant to be,” Reynolds said.

Suzanne Reynolds is in her second year teaching first and second graders at Fort O’Brien School in Machiasport.

Reynolds has been in education for close to a decade. She worked as a long-term substitute in her hometown of Scarborough and then as an ed tech in Beals, where her family is from. She got her teaching certification two years ago.

Although she learned a lot in her time substituting and as a special education tech, being a classroom teacher is what feels right, she said.

Reynolds enjoys building relationships with her students and watching them grow. She’s grateful that she gets them for two years because she knows where they left off and can help them master all of the skills they will need to tackle third grade.

But one of the things she enjoys the most about working at Fort O’Brien is that it’s fully staffed – a change from some of her previous experiences working in schools. “Having a school that is fully staffed makes a day run smoother and relieves tension,” Reynolds said.

It can be hard, Reynolds said, but she loves teaching.


“Sometimes I get home and it feels like too much, but then when I go back into the classroom, I think, ‘I couldn’t be anywhere else. I couldn’t do anything else,’” she said.

Still, the low pay can be tough to swallow.

Reynolds, who makes $41,500, waitresses year-round to supplement her income. She and her husband could survive solely on her income as a teacher and what he earns as a lobster fisherman and selling firewood, but it wouldn’t be easy, she said. “I’m waitressing in order for us to have a more comfortable winter,” she said.

Reynolds doesn’t mind the extra work, she said. But she finds it frustrating that she makes significantly more as a waitress than as a teacher. In the summer, Reynolds makes between two to three times what she makes teaching and works about half the amount of time, she said.

“I joke that I’m going to quit teaching to waitress full time,” she said. “It’s a joke, but there’s a little bit of seriousness.”

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