Living the Dream

December, 2009

Teaching in New Hampshire’s North Country

by Barbra Alan

Mark Ducharme photo.

When you think of New Hampshire’s North Country, it’s easy to picture majestic mountains, pristine lakes, and acres upon acres of seemingly untouched rural beauty. But the once-thriving economy, built largely on the paper mill industry, has deteriorated. And as more businesses close and the North Country transitions to a post-industrial economy, towns are struggling to maintain the quality of life for their residents.

Education in the North Country is also feeling the pain. As teachers retire, some North Country school districts are finding it difficult to find qualified candidates to fill those vacancies; districts also lack the financial wherewithal to offer candidates competitive salaries.

To help address the challenges North Country schools are facing, Plymouth State University launched the North Country Teacher Certification Program [NCTCP] in fall 2005.

A partnership among PSU, White Mountains Community College [WMCC] in Berlin, and Granite State College [GSC], the program prepares North Country residents who aspire to teach through convenient late afternoon and evening classes. Students take their first two years of courses at WMCC. Afterward, they become fully-admitted PSU students and have the option to take electives offered through WMCC and GSC. At the end of the program, participants are awarded bachelor’s degrees in childhood studies and K–8 teacher certification.

According to program director Irene Mosedale—a North Country native herself—the NCTCP allows its participants to achieve a dream they assumed was out of reach. “They wanted to be teachers, but PSU is the nearest institution that provides certification at the baccalaureate level. Many of them didn’t have the time or money to travel back and forth to Plymouth.”

While the program is funded primarily through PSU, with in-kind contributions from WMCC, it received an important boost in 2007 from the Neil and Louise Tillotson Foundation of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. “We were awarded a $42,000 grant for student stipends,” says Mosedale. “Most of our students are non-traditional; they have families, and most of them work at least part-time. So the 16 weeks they are required to student teach presents a challenge for them—there’s not a lot of time for them to work. The grant allows us to pay the students a stipend during their student teaching semester, so they can get the most out of the experience. For many students, the Tillotson stipends were invaluable.”

The first cohort of NCTCP students, whose ages ranged from early 20s to late 40s, earned their bachelor of education degrees from Plymouth State University in December 2007. Of the 15 members of the cohort, 10 of them are working in North Country Schools.

With their first year of teaching behind them, three participants from that first cohort share the joys and challenges of living their dream as teachers in the North Country.

Brenda Lambert
First-grade teacher, Brown Elementary School, Berlin

"I love teaching first grade." Brenda Lambert

By her early 20s, Brenda Lambert was a wife and a mother of two living in Berlin. “I didn’t go to college, but I always wanted to work with children,” she says. When her children were young, she ran an in-home daycare, which allowed her to work with children and be home with her own children. When her children became teenagers, Lambert worked as a physician biller for Androscoggin Valley Hospital, a post she held for 10 years. But a few years ago, when her husband switched careers—from construction to teaching building trades at the local high school—Lambert was inspired to make a switch of her own, and enrolled in the Teacher Preparation Program at White Mountains Community College. She heard about the NCTCP through Deborah Stewart, director of the Teacher Preparation Program.

After graduating in spring 2008, Lambert applied for a teaching position at Brown Elementary School, where she had completed her student teaching. Although she tried to remain optimistic that she’d be hired, two elementary schools closed that summer and as a result, a number of teaching positions were eliminated. “I held my breath until I got my contract,” she says.

The contract came and in September 2008, Lambert welcomed her first-grade class. As she looks back on her first year of teaching, she says, “I love teaching first grade. The kids are just starting to learn, and I was learning right along with them, trying things, and learning what works and what doesn’t.”

One thing Lambert learned was the importance of time management. “You can’t have a lot of down time in class, because you’ll lose the students’ attention,” she says. “It was a challenge for me to make sure I was filling our day without overloading the kids.”

Also important, Lambert learned, is parent involvement. In addition to sending home regular weekly newsletters to let parents know what their children will learn in the week ahead, Lambert says, “I send e-mails, letters, and call parents, depending on the circumstance. I’ve even taken parents aside at drop-off and pick-up. It’s really important to foster open communication with parents, to share not just the concerns, but the achievements, too.”

While Lambert was apprehensive about returning to school as an older student, she sees the benefits of her age in her new career. “I feel like I have an advantage, being somewhat older, having had a previous career, and having raised children,” she says. “All that life experience has added to my comfort and my confidence
as a teacher.”

Rob Scott
Athletic director, building math specialist, Lancaster Elementary School

"I love this area... and I really love the people." Rob Scott

Ten years ago, Rob Scott was an engineering major at the University of Vermont. Unsure of what he wanted to do, and not wanting to increase his college debt while he decided, he chose to take a break from school and found a job as a car salesman in his hometown of Lancaster. “I love this area,” he says. “It’s nice and quiet, not too far from the excitement of larger towns … and I really love the people.”

Then came the call that changed everything. “One day, I got a call asking me to coach wrestling,” Scott recalls. His stint as wrestling coach awakened in him an interest in teaching, and he began substitute teaching in local schools. He also enrolled in the Teacher Preparation Program at White Mountains Community College, where he learned about the NCTCP. “I realized that the program would fit my needs—I could take classes at night and on Saturdays in Berlin, and work during the day,” he says.

While his fellow NCTCP participants were beginning their student teaching, Scott was hired as a seventh-grade math teacher at Lancaster Elementary School. “The position became available, the state accepted my eligibility-to-employ application, and thanks to my math background from the University of Vermont, I was hired,” he says.

For Scott, who already had a good deal of classroom teaching experience behind him from substituting, the transition from student to teacher was a smooth one. “My first year of teaching was with a group of kids I had already worked with,” he says. “And PSU sent an advisor up to meet with me once every two or three weeks. The school district also supplied me with a mentor who was a math specialist.”

In his two years of teaching, Scott has learned much about his new profession, including the challenges of teaching in the North Country. For example, he says, “Our district has high turnover; new teachers sometimes view it as a stepping stone and only stay a year or two, and our older teachers are retiring—we had six retire in the elementary school last year alone.”

Another challenge, says Scott, is the tight budget that the school district needs to work within. “When I made my classroom budget last year, I requested $1200, which is not a lot for 90 students for a year, and I received only half of that. It’s because of the economy: people are working two or three jobs just to survive, three large paper mills closed in the area, and businesses are struggling, so when people go to vote on budgets, they’ve voting down school budget increases because they can’t afford an increase in their taxes.”

Then there’s the challenge of meeting the standards established by the No Child Left Behind Act. Lancaster Elementary has been designated a School in Need of Improvement (SINI) for the past few years, the result of poor standardized test scores. “As a school, we’ve always passed, but when the student population is broken into subgroups, our special education group hasn’t passed,” says Scott, adding that most recently, the special education group missed the cutoff by only a single point.

According to Scott, the SINI designation can hurt the school’s reputation at a time when it can ill afford it: with the new federal prison in Berlin expected to bring 300 new jobs to the area next year, Berlin and local communities are anticipating an increase in new residents. “Who wants to send their kid to a SINI school?” he asks.

While Scott and his colleagues at Lancaster Elementary are working hard to help their students improve their performance on standardized tests, his foremost goal has been to get his students to enjoy and excel at math. To that end, he has found some creative ways to motivate and reward his students. For example, last school year Scott and his students set a target goal for test scores, just slightly above the then-school record. “I told them that if we could average that, I’d dye my hair blue,” he says. “The students worked really hard, and sure enough, I came into school one day with blue hair.” Other rewards have included playing the Rock Band music video game during study hall as a reward for completed homework, and holding class outside on a sunny day as a reward for good behavior.

Now just into his third year at Lancaster Elementary, Scott is taking on new responsibilities as athletic director and math specialist for the school. “Half of my day is spent as athletic director, and the other half is administering our SINI plan and modeling small group instruction—moving kids in and out of different sections of math, depending on their needs. I’m also doing math enrichment activities with our higher-performing kids,” he says.

With his career on the fast track, Scott is already setting new goals, which include helping other aspiring teachers make their dreams reality. “I’d like to teach at WMCC or do some adjunct teaching at PSU, to help prepare other students to move into education.”

Jennifer Rideout
First-grade teacher, Lancaster Elementary School

"... I really like my small town, and I have deep roots and connections here." Jennifer Rideout

Jennifer Rideout remembers being told as a senior in high school that she’d make a really good teacher. Shortly after graduating from White Mountains Regional High School in 2004, she enrolled in the Teacher Preparation Program at WMCC. Rideout, who was born and raised in Lancaster, planned to earn her associate’s degree in teacher preparation from WMCC, then transfer to a four-year school to earn her bachelor’s in education. “But once I started visiting colleges, I just didn’t feel like they clicked with me,” she says. “I realized that I really like my small town, and I have deep roots and connections here.”

After learning about the NCTCP, Rideout realized she didn’t have to abandon her dream or her hometown. And two years after enrolling in the program, she had earned her bachelor’s degree in education from PSU. She spent the summer looking for a teaching position, and was hired as a fourth-grade teacher at Lancaster Elementary School just a week and a half before school started.

Like Lambert and Scott, Rideout found teaching in the community where she lived to be an advantage. “I knew a lot of the kids and their parents, and that made my first days a little easier,” she says, adding that her initial concerns that small-town familiarity would hurt her ability to gain the respect of her students, their parents, and those colleagues who had taught her as a child were unfounded.

“I loved teaching fourth grade—I just love the age,” Rideout says of her first year of teaching. “They are more independent, but they still look up to their teachers. And I had a great support system with the other two fourth grade teachers.”

And while she felt well-prepared by the NCTCP, Rideout notes that, “being the teacher, on my own, showed me I had so much more to learn. There are meetings, conferences with parents, standardized tests, managing a classroom full of diverse personalities … it’s [about] so much more than teaching students. But I also realized that this is what I really want to do.”

One of Rideout’s major classroom challenges was teaching children with a wide range of abilities. “I had one student who was reading and spelling on a 9th-grade level. At the same time, I had an English language learner and a student who was a nonreader and nonwriter. So I had to create multiple lesson plans each week, to accommodate the range.”

While Rideout understands the need to quantify and analyze student ability and progress, she laments the number of standardized tests her students have to take. “When I was a student, I remember spending most of the time learning in the classroom with the teacher,” she says. “But it’s so different now; there are so many testing requirements: two computer tests, a NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] test, and the NECAP [New England Common Assessment Program], which is given just weeks after they return from summer vacation. We spend a lot of time teaching for the next standardized test.”

Standardized testing frustrations aside, Rideout, who now teaches first grade at Lancaster Elementary and coaches field hockey at Lancaster Middle School, loves what she does. And when the 22-year-old thinks about her future, she sees a long, fulfilling teaching career.

More Teachers, More Opportunities

The second cohort of North Country teachers, who will graduate this May, hail from an even broader geographic range, coming from towns including Colebrook to the north and Milan to the east. Mosedale is pleased that the program is expanding its impact, and is exploring ways to continue that trend. “There’s a lot more to the North Country than what we are currently servicing—it’s huge,” she says.

Mosedale’s greatest inspiration for expanding the program’s reach comes from the participants themselves, particularly those from the first cohort. “One of the most powerful aspects of this program is that it has been life-changing for many of the students,” Mosedale says. “I’ve had a chance to work with and advise these students from the beginning, and to know where they were before [the program], and where they are now, is just amazing.”

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