Why do we do school? Is it serving the needs of the students, educators, communities, and industries of Maine? How can we make sure that we are designing school to meet current and future needs?
To discuss these questions, Education Action Forum of Maine hosted a virtual event on Sept. 20, 2022: Reimagining and Repurposing School with Superintendent Tim Doak. The 2018 Maine Superintendent of the Year, Doak leads MSAD 20 and RSU 39 in Aroostook County.
During the event, Doak, RSU 39 School Board Chair Dr. Tanya Sleeper, and Fort Fairfield High School English teacher April Flagg shared their districts’ vision to re-vision, re-imagine, and re-purpose school in ways that build on educator expertise.
Key takeaways included:
- Empowering teachers to lead
- Giving students voice and choice
- Building relationships through trust and empathy
“What is the current reality in our school programs?” Doak asked. “What’s the purpose of schools going forward? It is about empathy, it’s about equity. It’s about putting kids’ voice and choice into what we’re doing.”
Doak talked about offering kids different ways of showing what they’ve learned and outlined an idea he has for learning experiences and pathways within the high school. “Maybe a student will want to work on a farm, maybe a student wants to be on a fishing boat,” he said. “Not all these kids are going to go to four years of college. Many students will need creditials or skill-based training.”
Dr. Sleeper, who is also a parent of students in the district, added, “How do we allow children to thrive and excel by creating these unique pathways? We were always aware of the disparities and inequities, but the pandemic exacerbated those and made them glaringly apparent. We really have to change the way we do things.”
Doak noted that while challenging, the pandemic provided an opportunity to discover new ways of doing things. “We did a lot of things in our schools that many probably never thought was possible,” he said. “Our hidden potential was brought out in all of us.”
Offering a teacher’s perspective, April Flagg said, “It takes courage to step out of the norm and say, this isn’t working anymore. As a classroom teacher, I have a tendency to second guess anything I do. I don’t think ever in my lifetime have I seen teachers as downtrodden and almost demonized as in the past five years.”
Doak talked about how difficult it was to hire teachers this past summer. “What’s it need to look like going forward so we will continue to attract that young high school student that may want to be a teacher, anybody who’s in mid-career that may want to be a teacher? We want to make teaching an attractive profession.”
Flagg noted that a barrier to attracting teachers is the certification process, which she described as onerous. “Yes, teachers need to be certified, but I think there needs to be a conversation at the state level about a lifetime certification for a certain year teacher. I think there needs to be some serious conversations about a path of least resistance for those who have bachelor’s degrees who want to become teachers.”
“Above anything else … we need to empower our teachers again,” she said. “Covid left them feeling very exhausted and overwhelmed. When you give them the power to do the things that they feel need to be done, that’s what attracts teachers, that’s what keeps them, that’s what makes them happy.”
Doak emphasized the need for what he termed “psychological safety” in the workplace, for teachers to feel encouraged rather than put down for trying new things. “Groups of teachers empowered this way can be wonderful change agents in our schools. Teacher leadership is the future.”
Other district ideas to re-vision, re-imagine, and re-purpose school include changes to school times, a staggered school day for different grade levels, and open schedules, but there are barriers to enacting these types of policies. “Schools aren’t just a place to educate but also a place for children while Mom and Dad are at work,” Flagg said.
As one solution, Doak said he submitted an application to put a daycare at Fort Fairfield Elementary. “Fort Fairfield has no childcare center,” he said. “We do have some space in our school. We do have the behavioral specialists, we do have the food, we do have the ed techs, we do have the professionals. Bringing those kids into our schools is a beautiful stepping stone to going to school full time.”
He added that district students could assist in the daycare in exchange for high school credit and work experience. Those students “could be our next teachers or daycare workers,” he said.
The daycare idea could also address a barrier to attracting teachers, Doak noted. During the height of the pandemic, “we lost teachers who couldn’t teach because they had no daycare.”
Offering the school board’s perspective, Dr. Sleeper said, “We have to be engaged and committed to long-term investment. It not only applies to how we deliver education but how we recruit and retain staff.”
Doak emphasized that communication and building trust are critical to achieving the districts’ goals. He said he makes an effort to engage parents and other community members in various ways. “I’ve had coffee meetings, I’ve gone to Kiwanis Club, I’ve gone to Rotary luncheons. We need to step out and make that connection. If you’re not showing empathy, then you’re not allowing trust to take place. It’s all about relationships.”
“How do we engage the public more?” Dr. Sleeper added. “It really is about being courageous, setting the tone, setting the path. Making it okay to ask questions, making it okay to embrace change. … I think there’s a lot of value in what we can learn from others.”
“If I was to climb Mt Washington by myself,” Doak mused, “I might get halfway and the wind picks up, I’m going to probably pack it up and go home. But if someone else climbs with me and we do it together, we’re going to get to the top.”