A Conversation with the 2023 Maine Teacher of the Year – Matt Bernstein

The self-described ‘regular guy’ now has a remarkable title-2023 Maine Teacher of the Year-and he plans to use that title as he works to promote the profession and increase the number of people entering teaching. Bernstein believes if more people saw what teaching was really like, and the impact educators make, they would be ready to take on the role. That’s how he got hooked.

“I was in a fourth-grade classroom, and I was like, ‘this is it-this is exactly what I want to do. It is speaking to me!’ I don’t know what other job I could have where I could learn something new and laugh every day. Being with the kids is such a gift to me. I have a deep belief in young people and their ability to create change and change the world, and I’m happy to be near them doing that and making that happen,” said Bernstein.

That belief in change, growth, and evolution is deeply rooted in the Casco Bay High School teacher’s curriculum where his Portland students read and analyze case studies with the themes of oppression and resistance in history and how people have worked to make the world a better place. Bernstein says his curriculum is a direct product of listening to student voice and feedback, ensuring it represents his student population. Bernstein believes all curriculum should have windows and mirrors: windows to see other people’s experiences and mirrors to see your own experiences.

“I want them to learn in this class how they can be empowered to shape the world how they want it to be. I’m not in the business of telling kids how to think or what to think. What I want, if I’m getting it right, is kids to be empowered by learning so they can develop communication skills and critical thinking skills so they feel like they can take what they’ve learned and make their own decisions on how they show up in the community and how they want that community to be shaped,” said Bernstein.

Community at Casco Bay High School is at the center of everything staff and teachers do. It’s what Bernstein says helps make him a success and in turn his students successful.

“My favorite thing about this community is it’s under construction constantly, and the world is under construction. I’m not trying to tell them what to build but I’m trying to provide them with the tools to build what they want. It feels incredibly supportive, and I feel very much that this is a family, and like a family it doesn’t mean everything is perfect or we live in a Lucky Charms cereal box, but I know at the end of the day we all feel together,” said Bernstein.

Q&A With the Teacher of the Year

› Why do you believe you were selected Teacher of the Year?

It is the people around me; I’m such a product of this community and particularly because most of my career has been here, I did my student teaching here and 90% of my full-time teaching here, my professional life from 21-30 years old has been here at Casco Bay High School.

I feel very grateful for the recognition and the honor, and I also want to make sure people know it’s not just-me it’s my community that deserves recognition. I wouldn’t be the teacher or person I am if not for this place.

› What advice can you offer to other educators?

Slow down and really listen.

Listening is the thing that’s most important for me, and it’s a challenge because on a daily basis in a school things happen a thousand miles an hour. There is a lot we’re trying to do-it can get easy to snowball. When I remind myself to pause and really take time to listen and be present when they’re talking and sharing sometimes that unlocks us to go deeper and learn more.

I’m trying to get through x,y,z and I’m looking at the clock and I have 7 minutes left and I didn’t get to z but a student raises their hand and asks a question-that’s where the rich learning happens, that’s what pushes us forward. So, I slow down and listen to student voice.

› What will be your platform as Teacher of the Year?

My main platform is that teaching is amazing, and I would encourage people to consider teaching; I feel really strongly about it.

We need to attract new folks to the profession. We need to get anybody who is interested in teaching in the same room as teachers who are passionate about teaching, not to sell them but to show them what we do, why we love it, why it sometimes makes us want to pull our hair out, but also why we come back every day. Teaching is hard, and we need to be honest about that, and say it can be both hard and wonderful at the same time. I really think if we can connect with people we can get more people to choose teaching as a career. If we can offer that opportunity to college kids or people who are considering changing a career to experience what it is like, I really believe a lot of people will fall in love with it.

› What is the best part of your day?

The best part of my day is not a single moment. It’s any moment of authentic connection with a kid- that’s what makes my day- that five second laugh with a kid. And… any time I’m on the soccer field with kids. It’s a shared passion. Connecting with kids is the best part of this work and the beautiful thing is they happen all the time.