Award-winning German teacher Deb Backman in her classroom Tuesday at Cony Middle and High School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Deb Backman understands the importance of having a “really good teacher.”

Without her high school German teacher and later, her German college professor at the University of Vermont, she doesn’t know if she would be where she is today — a German teacher at Cony Middle and High School.

So when she was recently awarded the Foreign Language Association of Maine’s Teacher of the Year Award, she was surprised, naturally, but was able to recognize the effort she has put into Cony’s German program.

“To be honest, a lot of times I get the whole ‘imposter syndrome’ where I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “I know the kids like to know I’ve worked hard through time and effort.”

Backman, 47, graduated from the University of Vermont with degrees in German and history and credits her high school teacher and college professor for her love of German — interestingly, her high school German teacher is the wife of her German professor at UVM. Upon graduation, her professor encouraged her to apply for the Fulbright Program as a teaching assistant and ended up as one in Vienna, Austria.

It was after her experience abroad she considered being a teacher. She went back to UVM to get her masters in education and considered being an English as a second language teacher, similar to what she did in Austria, or to teach German. She admits, both were difficult avenues to find jobs for in Vermont.


She came to Maine by way of her parents who were from here, but mainly through learning her grandmother in Fairfield was diagnosed with cancer. Backman became close with her grandmother while she was in Austria by sending letters back and forth to her. She took a one year teaching position at Maranacook High School before a job opened up at Cony in Augusta.

Award-winning German teacher Deb Backman in her classroom Tuesday at Cony Middle and High School in Augusta. Displayed on the wall behind her desk are her grandmother and great grandmother’s Cony High diplomas. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Her great-grandparents and grandmother are Cony graduates and their diplomas are hung on her classroom wall.

“Both my great-grandparents and grandmother graduated from there, and education was really important to them,” she said. “Everything at Cony is to make them proud. She passed away two months after (Backman moved to Maine) and I always thought she had something to do with me getting the job. I always want to make her proud; she spoke of Cony with such pride.”

She has been at Cony ever since.

As of 2021, there are only 12 schools in Maine, public and private, that offer German. Most schools offer French, Spanish or Latin and require students to take a foreign language of their choice. Backman said her student enrollment is similar to French’s enrollment, around 100 students, where Spanish is double the German enrollment at Cony. Latin has around half of the German students.

Backman said it can sometimes be difficult to get student’s interest in German in comparison to French or Spanish.


“It’s easy to sell the Spanish program, where in the United States, Spanish is everywhere, French, especially in Augusta, is a huge part of student’s heritages. So German, sometimes we have to justify it,” she said, adding sometimes students can sometimes be discouraged when they see their peers in other languages ahead of where they are in German.

According to the U.S. Department of State, learning German from English is considered “more difficult” than learning French or Spanish. German is considered a “Level 2” language, requiring around 900 class hours to gain for a student to reach a “professional working proficiency” while French and Spanish, “Level 1” languages, usually takes 600 to 750 hours to get to the same level.

Signs outside of award winning German teacher Deb Backman’s classroom tell students in German to wear your mask, to keep distance and to wash hands, seen Tuesday at Cony Middle and High School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

To get the Foreign Language Association of Maine award, a teacher has to be nominated — Backman was nominated twice before by a fellow member of the Maine chapter of the American Association of Teachers of German. Also to qualify, a teacher has to have at least two years of a Foreign Language Association of Maine membership in addition to five years of teaching a foreign language. The association’s advisory board considers how the teacher teaches the language through certain activities, professional growth activities, how the teacher serves the district, among other similar categories.

Kimberly Martin, a member of the Augusta board of education, spoke of Frau Backman and the impact she had as a teacher to Martin’s son, Joshua, who is now a college student at Eastern Nazarene College. “Frau” is the title used to refer to a German-speaking woman.

“From day one, Frau gave him a place to belong,” Martin said. “She easily identified his strengths and used them to encourage him in his learning. Her confidence in him helped him grow his confidence in himself.”

Martin said Joshua had the chance to “experience things he never thought would be possible on his own” through trips to Denver for the “German Language Olympics” and two trips to Germany through Backman’s connection with the PASCH initiative. Joshua Martin graduated with a love for German, his mother said.


Backman established Cony High School as a German Government-designated U.S. PASCH partner school, making it one of 13 across the United States. Through the program, Cony students, like Martin’s son Joshua, have the chance to take trips across the country and in some cases, to Germany, all paid by the German Government. This summer, Backman has three students going to Germany on a full scholarship sponsored by PASCH.

She calls the PASCH partnership her “crowning achievement” and estimates Cony receives $15,000 to $20,000 a year on equipment to teach German uniquely through 360 degree video cameras where she can immerse her students in a German Café and through experiences her students have the opportunity of taking.

Backman “is an incredible educator who truly cares about her students,” Joshua Martin said. “She always advocated for me and gave me so many incredible opportunities. Even now, years after my graduation, she still thinks of me and sends me information on opportunities I could be involved with. She has been such a positive influence in my education and life.”

Backman understands not all of her students will continue to use their German after their graduation, but loves hearing stories of her former students doing so. In order to become fluent, she said, most people will have to immerse the language in their everyday lives, or spend time in a country where German is dominantly spoken.

“If they never go on to speak German a day after my class, or any language, I hope they learn something from other cultures,” she said. “In today’s world, it’s so important we understand differences, and it doesn’t mean some are better or worse, it’s just different and a different way of looking at things. It’s important we do a better job of understanding each other.”

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