JACKMAN — For the last 16 years, Kjerstin Winn cared for dogs, cats and other animals as a veterinarian at the Animal Medical Clinic in Skowhegan.

For a majority of those years, she also suffered from sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that can cause fatigue, weakness and pain. She began to struggle with lifting heavy animals and performing surgeries, and while she continued to love veterinary medicine, she began to think about a career change.

“I finally got sick enough that I couldn’t do my job,” said Winn, 51. “I started to think, ‘What can I do to be useful in the world?’ Because I still felt like I had something to offer, and I wanted to somehow be useful.”

In September, she found her answer in a classroom of the Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman, a school so tiny it is one of just a handful in Maine to house grades K-12 all in one building.

She still goes by Dr. Winn or Dr. K — the names her clients used to call her in Skowhegan — but instead of dogs and cats, her focus is now on 55 high school teenagers.

Winn teaches all the high school science classes, which are offered on a rotating basis to accommodate the small number of students. This year she teaches environmental science (a class that currently has just two students) and physics and next year she will teach biology and chemistry.

Jackman, a town with a population of about 850 just 20 miles from the Canadian border, doesn’t have a veterinarian of its own. Once a month, an out-of-town veterinarian flies in to treat the area’s pets, but otherwise the closest animal hospital is about an hour away.

In her downtime, Winn said she’s considered filling a bag with medical supplies and filling in as a part-time veterinarian. For now though she’s busy with her own lesson in finding out new things every day. She’s learning how to teach.

The Maine Department of Education doesn’t keep track of how many teachers started their careers in another field, but it’s not uncommon for teachers to have worked in another job before entering the classroom, said Director of Higher Education and Educator Effectiveness Bob Hasson.

“Certainly when you’re building a faculty, what you’re looking for is not monochromatic,” Hasson said. “It’s good to have as much diversity as you can draw to the faculty so they can talk to each other and work with kids with different backgrounds. It’s very valuable.”

Winn is certified with the department but is in the process of taking additional teaching classes to obtain a higher degree of certification. She also meets weekly with a teacher mentor and said the transition to living in Jackman wasn’t hard since she’s originally from another small town, Argyle, Maine.

“The support staff here is incredible,” she said. “The principal and superintendent are incredible, and if not for the other teachers, I would not have survived this long.”

The school is also happy to have her, according to Forest Hills Principal Denise Plante, who said it can be hard to attract good teachers in a rural school district where the cost of living can be high and the pay is low.

“One of the most important parts of teaching, especially very complex things, is how to see it in the real world,” Plante said. “There’s a big push for students to be able to apply the knowledge they learn so Dr. Winn’s experience with that is very important.”

Madisen Logston, 15, is one of Winn’s students and said it’s helpful to have a teacher with some real world experience in the classroom. In a recent physics class, for example, Winn used an example from veterinary medicine to illustrate the concept of gravity to her students, Logston said.

“It was easy to understand her point of view. Like she told us about how she would pick up a dog and then gravity is what helps bring it down,” she said. “It’s helpful. She’s really good at what she does.”

Winn also said that while she misses veterinary medicine, she has incorporated lots of lessons into the school’s science curriculum. She recently brought some carbon dioxide crystals, which are used in the anesthesia process, from the animal clinic in Skowhegan to the middle school science teacher. The crystals, which turn color when exposed to carbon dioxide, helped to illustrate the concept of photosynthesis.

Veterinary medicine has also helped her to illustrate life lessons for her students. Recently, Winn went back to her old office and took pictures of the walls covered in charts and procedure maps and brought them to school.

“I wanted the kids to know how much information we constantly have to look at, even as adults,” she said. “You can’t be expected to learn or memorize everything. The walls at our clinic are covered, and that’s because we’re finding out new information every day. You don’t just learn stuff right now and then use it for the rest of your life. No, every day you have to look things up.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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