Spruce Mountain school district teachers Julie and Rob Taylor work after hours at home in Jay on Nov. 20. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Maine teachers are exhausted and stressed, putting in more hours than ever and having to learn new ways of teaching in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

“It’s the craziest experience I’ve been through in over 30 years of teaching,” said Rob Taylor, a science teacher at Spruce Mountain High School in Jay.

“I can’t compare it to anything,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Every day I’m videotaping myself to share lessons with students and creating lessons online that students can do on their own.

“Every lesson requires multiple pathways.”

That’s because the Spruce Mountain district, like most others this year, has adopted a hybrid teaching model: Students are divided into two groups, with each group attending classes in person two days a week and working remotely the rest of the week. Most districts also have a group of fully remote students.

One of Taylor’s assignments was for students to design a management plan for a 400-acre forest. That is usually done with pencil and paper, he said.

But that wouldn’t work for remote students, so he designed an online version and then made an instructional video to explain how to use it.

“That alone took hours of work,” he said.

His wife, Julie Taylor, is a math teacher at Spruce Mountain Middle School. Both Taylors said they worked 12 hours Tuesday and work 10-12 hours per day on average.

They don’t get much of a break on weekends.

“It’s just the day in and day out,” said Julie, a teacher for 32 years. “There’s no end. You’re always thinking about school. I could be out taking a walk and get three notifications on my phone that someone wants to talk to me. It could be a Saturday or Sunday.”

Some teachers shut off their notifications because they need a day, she said.

“It’s exhausting. We’re exhausted,” she said.

Bree Crocker, a second-grade teacher at Sherwood Heights Elementary school in Auburn, said teachers have a lot more to manage outside the school day.

Bree Crocker

“You have to make sure you get in touch with students, answer emails, you’re posting assignments on Google Classroom and Seesaw (online teaching platforms), also trying to keep up with kids in the classroom,” she said. “I spend a few hours each night to make sure those things get done.”

Crocker, in her ninth year of teaching, is vice president of the Auburn Education Association.

AEA President Courtney Pierce, a fifth-grade teacher at Park Avenue Elementary School, said the extra work is overwhelming for many educators. Teachers do not have enough time to do everything, she said.

“Teachers are more stressed this year than I’ve ever seen them,” said Pierce, a teacher for 20 years.

Courtney Pierce

Most have their own families, some with young children, and then there’s the pandemic and worrying about pupils who don’t show up for online instruction, she said.

She said she has to prepare differentiated lessons for students, depending on how well they are meeting the standards. Some are still catching up from the spring, when schools closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s not just one thing,” she said. “It’s everything coming together. It’s definitely more work.”

“More work” is the Greek chorus around the region.

Christopher Carver and Craig Dilman, co-presidents of the Western Foothills Education Association, teach social studies and science, respectively, at Mountain Valley High School in Rumford.

The RSU 10 district, comprising Rumford, Mexico, Roxbury, Hanover, Buckfield, Sumner and Hartford, has adopted the popular hybrid model of two groups getting in-person/remote instruction and one group getting fully remote lessons.

Chris Carver

“What makes it overwhelming is that I have three different cohorts of students,” said Carver, who is in his 32nd year of teaching.

He teaches six classes, four of which are different courses. Three classes are synchronistic, meaning he is instructing in person and remotely at the same time.

When the school day ends, he meets with students on Zoom, a videoconferencing platform.

“All work outside the classroom is voluntary,” Carver said. “If you were cynical, you could say we’re suckers, but we care about our kids and try to give them a quality education.”

Dilman, in his 19th year of teaching, said he monitors 11 Google Classrooms and has an “extra” class of Region 9 School of Applied Technology students once a week. He also records video lecture notes each week and sends them out so students working remotely can reference them as needed, he said.

“The sheer amount of it is overwhelming, trying to keep up with everything,” he said. “It’s a struggle.”

‘LEARNING CURVE IS VERY STEEP’

Craig Dilman

Lewiston teachers told the School Committee on Nov. 2 that they were working as many as 100 hours a week and were mentally and physically exhausted.

Many said they were struggling to find time to prepare lessons for both in-person and virtual instruction. They worried that they weren’t doing a good job, that students weren’t getting what they needed. Staffing shortages were adding to the time squeeze.

Diane Rodrigue, an education and childhood development teacher at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center, was among those who spoke.

“The learning curve is very steep,” she told the committee.

“I’m asking you to provide more time so we can navigate through this very different kind of year,” she said.

She said the rigorous training on all Google programs and a required certification exam with a looming deadline was distracting teachers from what mattered: teaching.

“Where would you want my focus?” she asked, choking up. “I’m a mom, and first and foremost I would want it on my kids.”

Under the direction of the School Committee, Superintendent Jake Langlais suspended training and gave the teachers three Wednesdays to work on lesson plans without student responsibilities.

Diane Rodrigue

Rodrigue said Nov. 19 that the changes have relieved some of the stress and lightened the workload.

“A thank-you goes to the Lewiston School Committee and the Lewiston Public Schools administration for listening to the teachers’ concerns and needs and for taking steps to begin to support those concerns and needs,” Rodrigue wrote in an email interview.

She said her primary focus is on the immediate needs of her students for instruction, skill-building and support during this “different kind” of school year.

Rodrigue, a teacher for 34 years, said she works from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day and until 10 p.m. four nights per week, stopping to pick up her youngest son from school and to cook supper for her family. She also works five to eight hours every Sunday.

“I do it because it’s the right thing to do and my students need knowledge and skills, even in a pandemic,” she said.

She wants to make sure she is ready for whatever her students need for the next day, she said.

“That takes many additional hours of learning new technology, planning assignments, implementing them onto a Google Classroom, reaching out to students who did not attend my Zoom meeting, answering emails and tending to other Zoom meetings and tasks,” she said.

The Lewiston district also has been dealing with staff shortages among its nearly 800 educators.

As of Nov. 24, 100 positions were open and posted, Assistant Superintendent Karen Paquette said. These include postings for coaches and substitutes. Sixty-nine are education technician positions and eight are teacher positions, Paquette said.

“These numbers can fluctuate frequently with hires and resignations,” she said.

Some teacher positions have been filled by shifting people from other positions.

Kara Boudway

Kara Boudway, an instructional coach at Lewiston Middle School, is teaching seventh-grade literacy this year because of the staffing shortage.

“It’s been a wild ride,” she said Thursday. “Right now, for us all it’s about engaging students and their families.”

Boudway, in her ninth year of teaching, said this year has felt like a new beginning.

“It’s almost like being a first-year teacher, requiring shifts in how the classroom translates into remote,” she said.

She uses Google Classroom for assigning lessons and giving students feedback. She creates all lessons on Google slides, but she teaches remotely on Zoom, she said.

She worked about 50 hours this past week, she said, and she works every day, nights and weekends.

It’s a challenging time, she said, but “there are always more tasks than time, regardless of COVID. Teaching has always been a job that extends beyond the classroom.”

At Minot Consolidated School, sixth-grade teacher Holly Patenaude said the district, RSU 16 (Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls), has overcome the challenges of remote instruction.

When the school year began, educators from the district’s three elementary schools, one in each town, met once a week to create two weeks’ worth of lessons on Seesaw, she said.

It was a collaborative approach, she said, with groups focusing on different content areas.

Holly Patenaude

POSITIVES AND NEGATIVES

Patenaude said she is finding positives: Classes are smaller because two groups of students are working remotely each day. Classes average seven pupils, she said.

“Kids are getting a more individualized education,” she said.

But the connections are not the same because of masks and social distancing.

“We’re connecting in different ways,” she said. “They may not always see my face, but they see my smile, my crinkly eyes and hear my laugh.”

Auburn teachers Pierce and Crocker said they feel more connected to pupils because classes are smaller.

“Students who normally wouldn’t say ‘boo’ in class are speaking up and answering questions,” Pierce said. “I really enjoy this piece, getting to know them.”

Crocker said she can give her pupils more individual attention, but she misses them on remote days and worries about where they are and what they’re doing, especially if she doesn’t hear from them.

Are they being fed, getting the support they need to learn their lessons?

“They might not be in a good home situation,” she said.

Other teachers feel less connected to their students.

“It is extremely difficult to connect to students,” LRTC teacher Rodrigue said. “The masks suggest distance, as that is their goal.”

She said classrooms should be places for community, group learning, friendship building, compassion and listening.

That is all “very, very difficult right now,” she said, “but we share gestures from a distance, talk louder so we can hear each other and keep hoping that one day soon, we won’t need our masks or to distance.”

Spruce Mountain teacher Rob Taylor said he has a student whose face Taylor has never seen.

“I have a remote student whose avatar (on Google) is Tom Brady,” Taylor said. “When I picture this kid, I see Tom Brady.”

Boudway said she cried a few times in the first months — “and I don’t ever cry” — because she missed the relationship-building aspect of her job.

“I teach because I love kids,” she said. “That loss of in-person was really difficult.”

She has found ways to connect since then.

“One kid loves to be read to, so I read to him while he’s eating breakfast,” she said. She also takes 10 minutes out of each day to play academic and trivia games with students online as a way of getting to know one another.

“It usually takes three weeks to get to know kids, and I’m just now hitting the groove,” she said.

A LOST YEAR?

One thing on which teachers agree is that this will not be a lost year for students.

“Absolutely not,” Boudway said.

When schools closed in March, instructional time was lost because it was sudden and no one was prepared for remote instruction, she said.

But that has changed.

“We have so many protocols in place that everyone is ready to go remote if we need to,” she said. “When you know better, you do better.”

And kids are appreciating school like never before, she said.

“Usually, middle-schoolers are like, ‘I hate school,’” she said. “Now they love being in class and they’re acting more like education is a privilege.”

Rodrigue said the skills and instruction are not as robust as they are in a typical year, but other lessons are being learned.

“Students and teachers are learning the skills of compassion, flexibility, gratitude and technology applications,” she said.

Patenaude, the Minot Consolidated School teacher, said she is seeing some of the best scores on assessments that she’s seen.

“We are able to individualize and really focus in on certain skills,” she said. “They’re happy to be at school, and when they’re at school they are working hard. Smaller classes have helped.”

Her pupils are writing more, their focus is better, they work harder and longer on assignments, she said.

She said people were worried about kids coming in from the spring shutdown with significant losses. Initially, she was concerned, but now she is seeing great gains, she said.

She said absenteeism is not a problem.

“We are really on top of attendance, even remotely,” she said. “We are in frequent communication with parents. If a student is absent, we check in and let them know what assignments they’re missing.”

If a pupil is absent for more than two days, the school counselor gets involved, she said.

Mountain Valley’s Dilman said this year’s teaching model is not ideal, but it’s “definitely leaps and bounds better than last spring.”

He said students might end the year with some gaps in learning that will have to be filled at some point, “but we as professionals are doing what we can to get these kids where they should be. I think we’ll get them there.”

His colleague Carver said the only students not engaging in schoolwork are some in the fully remote cohort.

“It’s not universally true, but many fully remote students are students who didn’t engage when they were here,” Carver said. “Some are doing outstanding work, but a number of students have checked out.”

Julie Taylor, the Spruce Mountain Middle School teacher, said her hybrid students have adapted well, following safety protocols and doing “amazing” work in the classroom.

The transition to work at home by themselves is a very difficult one and needs to keep improving, she said.

“I’m trying to be patient with my students, offering them many opportunities to make up work if they get behind,” she said. “I want them to learn.”

Rob Taylor said the new model forces teachers to think about what’s important.

“Instead of worrying about the giant breadth of information — we know we can’t get there — we need to make sure kids have this certain set of skills and master content, and that slows the process down even more,” he said.

He said he had students who after three or four weeks were failing everything.

“I knew they were good students,” he said. “What I needed to get through to them was that they actually have to work on remote days. These are not days off.”

TEACHING IN A PANDEMIC

Taylor said four teachers in the Spruce Mountain district have left their jobs midyear.

“We have unfilled teaching positions and a smaller pool to pick from,” he said.

He said he is concerned about the profession. The nation has a shortage of 1 million teachers, he said, and Maine has seen a 60% drop in the number of teachers graduating from all institutions.

The state had been producing 1,000 teachers per year, he said. That dropped to 400 in 2018 “and that’s pre-COVID.”

The workload is being absorbed by those who remain, he said

Despite the difficulty of teaching during a pandemic, the upside is that kids are learning how to overcome adversity, Taylor said.

“When they are in school five days a week and being spoon-fed, they don’t need to struggle and persevere,” he said.

And the rewards are still there, Rodrigue said.

“This is an amazing time to be a teacher,” she said. “The rewards, which come in the form of gratitude, happen each and every day. Having the opportunity to be able to engage students in learning, at least on some level, has been the most rewarding for me.

“I am exhausted, overwhelmed and elated, all at the same time.”

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