WATERVILLE — More than 40 high school students from around the state gathered at Thomas College on Friday morning to get a taste of teaching at the college’s fourth annual Future Teachers Academy.

The Future Teachers Academy, presented by the staff of Thomas College’s Lunder School of Education and partnered with the Maine Department of Education and Maine teachers of the year, aims to create a stronger workforce of teachers in the state of Maine, according to Ed Cervone, executive director for the Center of Innovation at Thomas.

“Across the board, there is a teacher shortage, including in Maine. Most of the teachers are from here originally,” Cervone said, “so the purpose of today is to get the attention of the students early so we can show them what it’s going to be like to be a teacher. It’s important to expose kids early so we can show them the opportunities they have and get their aspirations up so they’ll be more likely to pursue it.”

Cervone said that Thomas College plays a particularly important role in creating the new generation of Maine’s teachers.

“Seventy-five percent of the students at Thomas are from Maine, and 80% of our graduates stay in the Kennebec Valley,” Cervone said. “So we’re prepping these professionals to go out and serve our local community.”

High school students from around the state attend Future Teachers Academy at Thomas College on Friday. Here a group molds muscles in an exercise designed to test their approach to education.

Once students were welcomed to the college’s Center for Innovation in Education and Lunder School of Education on Friday, that preparation began.

Dr. Richard Biffle, a professor of education and instructor of anthropology and archaeology at Thomas, set the tone of his presentation with a charge to his audience of would be teachers: “Creating and designing life experiences that cultivate and nurture a person from childhood through adulthood.”

Focused on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, Biffle discussed the importance of incorporating the elements of STEAM into education and what it does for young learners.

“STEAM teaches you how to do things, how to do things in a team. It builds confidence in students. I have students come in here and they have no experience, and after nine weeks they’re working with robotics, circuitry, building drones,” Biffle said. “It (STEAM) moves cultures and societies forward. To be a teacher, you have to be an innovator, you have to create.”

To give the students a taste of the STEAM curriculum, Biffle gave them building blocks and instructed them to “build something that reflects STEAM.”

“This is the opportunity that teaching gives you,” Biffle said. “It gives you the opportunity to play, to be creative, all while learning.”

Biffle also offered advice.

“Not everybody can do this,” he said. “It’s a true calling. Teachers have to have confidence, you have to have a voice, you have to have courage. Education is lifelong. It doesn’t end when you graduate high school or college. I learn something new every single day. Teaching is the highest calling a person can have, and you all have the opportunity to be the voice for young people your age who want to do this.”

Dr. Katie Rybakova, an assistant professor of education who teaches literacy courses at Thomas, presented students with a scenario that placed them in the shoes of a student learning English as a second language.

“Think about your future classrooms and the English language learners that will be in your classes,” Rybakova said. “I want you all to close your eyes, and when you open them, we’re in Moscow, Russia.”

Once the students imagined themselves overseas, Rybakova tried to communicate with them in Russian. When she returned to speaking English, she asked them to think about how the experience made them feel and to brainstorm ways teachers can make their classrooms a more welcoming and inclusive place.

“On a national level, 21% of students in public schools are English language learners,” Rybakova said. “That population is growing in Maine. Across Lewiston High School there are 34 languages spoken. How do we make sure we involve these English language learners in the classroom?”

Rybakova also pointed out that teachers need to be more welcoming to students facing all types of adversity.

“In Maine, 22.5% of kids between zero and 17 years old have experienced some adverse childhood experience,” Rybakova said. “That can come in many different forms like abuse, addiction, the loss of a loved one … 16.2% of students in Maine qualify for special education, and 14.4% of children in Maine are food insecure. Now how could kids learn when they haven’t had breakfast or dinner? They don’t. If they’re hungry, they don’t care … it’s not just the ELL kids we’re preparing for, but kids in all types of situations.”

Eric Brown, who teaches biology, physiology and anatomy at Lawrence High School in Fairfield, uses an exercise on building a prototype of a muscle out of clay Friday as a way to illustrate different approaches to education at the Future Teachers Academy at Thomas College.

Eric Brown, who has taught biology, physiology and anatomy at Lawrence High School for the last 26 years and was named a 2017 County Teacher of the Year, simulated a real lesson he teaches in his anatomy classes.

Students were to imagine that they had been hired by a medical company as a research and design associate. They were to construct a prototype of a typical muscle out of clay. But the exercise had a twist.

“Open clay and begin to warm it up as you have a quick discussion on how the head, the hands and the heart are each important to your approach to education,” Brown’s handout said. “With your group decide which of these will be the model that you build. Create your model which will be used to educate learners around the globe!”

Brown said that the point of the exercise was to teach students how they can create relationships with their future students, as well as think on their feet.

“Kids are only in school for 1,000 hours per year,” he said. “We can’t waste any time.”

For Laney Hepler, a senior at Orono High School, the Future Teacher Academy provided an array of new information regarding her future career as an educator.

“Today has been great. I’ve never done anything like this before,” Hepler said. “I hope to go to the University of Maine at Farmington for early education, and today allowed me to see what being in college will be like and what being a teacher will be like.”

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