Introducing the Unrealized Maine Classroom

Public education in America is facing some unique and dire challenges as we progress further into the digital age. There are plenty of other blogs out there that attempt to address the issues that plague public education, but many tend to focus and dwell on the negative.  I’m not here to tell you that Republicans or Democrats are ruining our schools, or that corporations are taking over our schools, or that the government is underfunding our schools, or that teachers, parents, or children are to blame for all our struggles in public education.  We have all have heard those claims many times already and no education revolution has occurred as a result.   

In the meantime, our young people are waiting, quite literally, for something to happen.  They want something to happen at school that makes them want to be there more than anywhere else.  In particular, today’s youth want school to be more interesting, more engaging, more inspiring, so they don’t feel compelled to pull their cell phones out of their backpacks and find something interesting, engaging and inspiring on their own.  

Chances are, if you have a child or teenager who is a patron of our public schools, interesting, engaging, or inspiring are not the words that come to their minds when you ask them to describe their experience at school.  That’s not to say that we who work in your child’s school are not trying our darnedest to deliver.  It’s just that innovation and excellence… real excellence… are not really happening on a daily basis in our classrooms.  As a result, our students are simply not captivated, and that makes both teaching and learning very difficult.

Welcome to The Unrealized Maine Classroom.  The BDN has graciously offered me this forum to talk about the great things that ought to be happening in our public schools, as well as some of the great things that are happening, and what it takes to make them happen everywhere and anywhere.   I’m going to share with you some conversations with teachers, both novice and accomplished, about the lessons they teach, the work that goes into them, and both their successes and their failures.  Hopefully I will hear from readers who are teachers as well, and who can relate to the stories in this forum.  And lastly, we’re going to ask some tough questions here about what is preventing innovation and excellence from happening every day in our schools, and discuss what we must do to make it happen as soon as possible.  After all, there has never been a time when the situation has been more dire; we owe our young people an educational experience in the public schools they attend that interests, engages and inspires them.  If we don’t provide that, we will lose them.

In the coming weeks, we’re going to tackle a lot of ideas, and some of them might be controversial.  Again, I do hope to hear from readers on a regular basis.  I want my own ideas to be challenged and/or confirmed by others in the education field, as well as by other readers interested and concerned about public education.  Having our minds changed is exactly the act of learning, and when it happens, it is most exciting.  Life is all about flip-flopping.

I’ll wrap up this introductory post by tossing out some ideas to talk about in future entries, some real head-scratchers to consider as we embark in this discussion.  But first, let me talk briefly about teaching in Maine.

If you live in Maine, you know that our state is not known for its ethnic or racial diversity (it exists, but you have to look for it), and you may or may not be aware that Maine is one of the most economically diverse states in the USA.  Business Insider just two years ago ranked Maine the 4th worst state economy of all fifty states, yet Maine has some of the most affluent coastal communities in the country.  We have some of our wealthiest communities neighboring some of our poorest; drive west a few miles from our high-end oceanfront neighborhoods and see authentic rural northern Appalachian poverty.  And these communities all have schools, in part, funded by local taxes.  The difference from one school district to the next can be astounding.  Dating back to my substitute teaching days, I have taught in many of these districts, from Maine’s two biggest cities, to Midcoast and Downeast rural towns, and in-between!  I have experienced the anxiety and crushed morale that comes with working in a poor school district plagued by perennial budget cuts and the threat of lost jobs.  I have taught in buildings that were one careful inspection away from being condemned.  And sadly, I have had my share of students who did not know whose couch they would be crashing on from one night to the next, or if they will get breakfast the next morning.  Many experienced teachers in Maine have experienced the same as I have.  If you are not from Maine, chances are schools in Maine struggle with the same issues as schools in your state.  So The Unrealized Maine Classroom is also The Unrealized American Classroom.

Below are some of the challenges we will encounter as we learn about great things that we want happening on a regular basis in our schools.  I hope readers will check them out, think about what we want happening in our schools, and share their thoughts in the days, weeks and months ahead.  

  • The Common Core Standards are not the issue, as these can be a major resource for excellence and innovation in the classroom.
  • The “culture of accountability” is partly to blame for a lack of innovation and excellence in the classroom, as it creates excessive demands on teachers and stifles creativity
  • “Bad teachers” are rare and are not the norm, as in any profession
  • New teachers enter the profession at a disadvantage and are often overwhelmed and disappointed
  • Teachers need a great deal more professional time, similar to the office hours instructors in higher education traditionally have, in order to plan lessons, prepare lesson space and materials, and follow-up with assessing and feedback <— This is a really big deal.
  • Teachers need the flexibility to occasionally fail and learn from such trials, as well as revise lessons
  • Teachers need to be encouraged to innovate and create, and to make brave mistakes
  • Teachers need to be better prepared in teacher-training and PD, both in content-area expertise and in pedagogical/ child development expertise
  • Ideally, there should be more teachers specializing in content areas even at the elementary level (this is not a must, and is impossible in some rural communities)
  • All teachers’ supervisors really should be master teachers who can be trusted to subjectively evaluate and support teachers.
  • There is really no fair and reliable way to quantitatively measure teacher effectiveness

In this digital age, there is a greater urgency than ever to engage and inspire our students, especially at the MS and HS levels, who have the world literally at their fingertips.  Discouraged, bored young minds can skip school and inspire themselves on the couch at home with a wireless device; they can access anything they want to, educate themselves, entertain themselves, and have the potential to give themselves a more relevant, more comprehensive education online than they can get sitting in a classroom setting learning from texts… It is up to public school educators to make school lessons, projects, activities engaging and inspiring enough for young people to want to show up and participate.  We owe this to our learners.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.