Despite ongoing national crises of teacher shortages, pandemic-related setbacks and underpayment, Maine’s 2023 Teacher of the Year still feels lucky to wake up every morning and go to the classroom.
Matt Bernstein is convinced he has “the best job in the world.” He gets to fulfill his own love for learning alongside some of his “favorite people on the planet,” his students.
Bernstein, a ninth-grade social studies and humanities teacher at Casco Bay High School, a public school in Portland, was given the award last fall. The 31-year-old Bowdoin College graduate has been teaching for 10 years and been in Portland since 2014.
Bernstein feels there’s an inaccurate narrative out there suggesting that teaching is a negative profession, or that behavior is getting increasingly difficult in schools. He and his colleagues are eager to act as resources for aspiring teachers. They’re in teaching because they love it — and that positive narrative isn’t always the one that gets shared.
“I want to highlight that, I want people to know that,” he said.
He’s not going to try to sell teaching to anyone either, because he truly believes it sells itself when you walk into a classroom.
“I want to work toward telling more positive stories about young people, about the work happening in schools, about teachers,” Bernstein said. “When we highlight those stories, we can showcase the good that’s happening.”
Changing the way people talk about teaching is just one goal. The other is investing in education.
Bernstein spent last week in Washington, D.C. at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, and received recognition alongside the rest of the nation’s top educators. There, they engaged with government to support public education and “back it with the money it deserves.”
That means giving teachers more competitive salaries, especially for first-years, to make it an attractive profession and one that’s realistic to stick with.
At the summit, there was “universal recognition” of ongoing teacher shortages — a global issue, according to other leaders of world education, Bernstein said.
He is humble about his achievement, crediting his students and colleagues for making it possible for him to be in D.C., rubbing shoulders with international leaders in education, President and First Lady Joe and Jill Biden and Maine Senators Angus King, a Democrat, and Susan Collins, a Republican.
Bernstein hopes that he can continue growing as an educator, and in the broader scheme of Portland Public Schools and public education, working toward an “incredible education system for all students.”
He understands the desire following the changes from the pandemic to want to get back to a feeling of “normal” in schools, he said, but building on education for students now is going to need to be much more than just improving academics and test scores. It starts with relationship building between students, families and the community, so that students can feel heard and understood. He mentioned the concept of “homeplaces,” which is anywhere people are truly embraced and loved for who they are.
Making schools into homeplaces for students is “one of the most powerful things we can do for them,” he said, “so that when they walk in the door they feel loved, they feel seen and they feel that we believe in them.”
When those things happen, Bernstein sees students thrive. When they don’t, students can struggle.
“If we as a society say that’s our priority, coming off the pandemic that’s what we’re trying to make happen,” Bernstein said, “then I think we’ll be seeing all the positive ripple effects that we want to see.”
Making Portland Work is an occasional series about people who do their jobs, day in and day out, in good times and bad. They’re the unsung heroes we see and depend on every day. Do you know someone we should include? Let us know at [email protected].