Former teacher Jennifer Ferguson at the start of the school year that was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
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Good educators have a passion for planning. Elementary school teacher Jennifer Ferguson, 26, formerly of School Administrative District 6 in Buxton, is no exception.

With eight years in the field, Ferguson recently wrapped up two years of looping fourth- and fifth-grade with the same group of 22 students. Slated to teach a class of fresh-faced third-graders in the fall, Ferguson made the “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” decision to resign from the career she grew up believing was her path in life.  

“Both my parents were in education,” she said over a physically distanced brunch. “I thought I’d never do anything else, which was fine because I really love teaching. I had no intention of leaving until COVID-19 hit, and other things unfolded. It’s a really complex issue.”

Finding it “ridiculous” that Maine’s top brass initially gave the state carte blanche to open school doors, Ferguson believes the traffic light-color safety-system calls should be up to local school districts. A rabbit hole of what-ifs and how-tos contributes to the confusion, making the most basic tenets of education challenging. 

“Putting the obvious COVID-19 health concerns aside, there are a lot of big asks going on here, for everyone,” she said. “How do parents juggle ‘hybrid learning’ when the kids come to school some days and not others? How do they manage when they have to work and are also expected to participate in or supervise distance learning? What if it switches to full-distance learning again?

“There are no answers at all,” Ferguson continued. “Classrooms should be set up by now, and ready to accommodate the students, at the very least. But in reality, we’re all doing the best we can. The district is trying.” 

For Ferguson, distance learning wasn’t all bad.

“I found it gave me a way to learn about family dynamics and I was able to get involved,” she said. “But I also had an extraordinary group of kids and colleagues.”

Acknowledging not everyone is as lucky, we discussed a friend who teaches middle school in Portland. Her off-the-record stories about being away from her students of color as Black Lives Matter unfolded were heartbreaking.

Affirming that teacher’s pain, I touched base with a friend who teaches in Portland and bartended his way through school while getting his master’s degree in education at the University of Southern Maine. He was uncharacteristically down.

“It’s a mess,” he said. “Bureaucracy and CYA are bad enough as it is in education, but how are we supposed to do this? What high school kid is interested in AP classes when they might not be able to go to college? How do we work with things as they are? … You asked how I am? I’m sad, frustrated, exhausted, super-stressed, and deeply concerned about education in our country.”

Ferguson gets the negativity, and has heard through the teaching grapevine that others are planning earlier-than-anticipated retirements, too.

“It’s a matter of economics for a lot of us,” she said. “That, and we love the kids. Teachers are told to practice good self-care,” she continued. “It comes from a well-meaning place, but in March, I found myself with no time to eat lunch and was constantly washing my hands and trying to explain it to the children. Let’s face it, we’re potentially sacrificing our own lives and those of our families, and frankly, I’d be terrified to go back. Self-care is off the table when things are so hectic.”

Ferguson recognizes her short career makes it easier to leave the teaching than some veterans with seniority.

“Sure, the guaranteed retirement benefits, supposedly having weekends and summers off, and free or affordable health insurance are great, and that’s a reason for many to stay,” she sighed. “But some of the older teachers have additional challenges with the technology required to do distance learning well. There are different software programs and almost no training. It’s part of the struggle.”

Ferguson has accepted a multi-location, retail management position with a small company that will make good use of her planning and teaching skills. Her husband, a psychiatric nurse, will carry their insurance.

Referring again to federal and state educational planning uncertainty, family safety, and lack of self-care as the prime motivators for resigning, Ferguson is not without bittersweet remorse.

“This was a seriously devastating decision and I’ll miss my kids forever,” she said. “It’s very complex.”

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at natalie@portlandphoenix.me.