Get to know Matt Bernstein, Maine’s 2023 Teacher of the Year and a 9th grade Social Studies teacher at Casco Bay High School in Portland. Matt sat down for this Q&A as he begins his year of service.
How long have you been a teacher and how long have you taught at Casco Bay High School?
This is my 10th year teaching. I did my student teaching at Casco Bay, which I don’t count in those years. I taught in Rhode Island for my first year of teaching and then came to Casco Bay.
What made you want to enter the teaching profession?
Students made me want to enter the profession. I went to a 4th grade classroom in Brunswick during an Ed 101 class my freshman year in college and I was hooked. I remember thinking, “this is unbelievable, I can do this every day?” I love being around kids and working with them and seeing them grow.
How did you end up becoming a high school social studies teacher?
I knew I loved the kids, so then I thought about what content I’m most fired up about. What do I love? And it’s history. I have a fascination with connecting bullet points from the past that seem to be different and unrelated, and understanding the through line that goes between them.
I have a passion for working with young people and a passion for history, and that almost naturally steered me towards secondary school. I love connecting with teenagers. It’s both super exciting and super challenging to be a teenager, and I like sitting down with them and really getting to the core of who they are, who they want to be, and what they need from us to get there.
What does it mean to you that a student nominated you for Teacher of the Year?
It’s hard to put words to it because it means everything to me. It validates what I believe about education and what I prioritize about education, which is human connection and building relationships. It’s about seeing students for who they are as young people and being a support for young people.
In that nomination, the student talked about learning things, and I valued that, but for the most part they talked about me being someone who they felt they could go to. I believe that all young people deserve to know that there are people in their school who they feel they can turn to. To hear that I was that for one kid is everything. And it’s been motivating to me to know that this is something as a school that we are capable of, so we need to do it for everyone.
What do you love about Casco Bay High School and what makes your school special?
How community driven it is. It genuinely feels like family here—with my colleagues, with the school leaders, and with the students. It really is such a supportive place and place where everyone seems invested in one another. Everyone is bought into and building upon the idea that one’s success is a collective success and collective win. And when one person is having a hard time, it’s all of our responsibility to help them out. And it comes from the top, with school leaders setting the tone and establishing a culture of community, collaboration, support, and teamwork.
There are good days and bad days. There are things that are really difficult and tough for kids and families and us, so it’s helpful to fall back on the feeling that we are all on the same team. We may be having a moment, but we’re in this together.
Your crew has come up a lot in your nominating process. What is your crew and why is your crew meaningful?
My crew is meaningful because I love them so much. Crew is basically our equivalent of what others might call advisory. But it’s on steroids. I have a crew of 13 ninth grade students. I see them every day and we eat lunch together on Wednesdays.
The idea of it is that we want every student to feel that there is at least one adult in the building who knows them and who can be a resource for them. It’s beyond knowing how they are doing in Social Studies, but how they are, who they are, and who they want to be. It’s helpful for families too because I become the point person for them in the school. The crew is establishing connections, and they stay together through all four years with a new advisor each year. When they graduate, they graduate not by alphabetical order but by crew.
Crew is like family in school and that’s where I get fired up. The place that speaks to me the most and gets to my heart as a teacher is: who are you? how are you doing? where are you going? how can I help you get there? And I feel like crew enables that connection.
What are you planning to focus on as Maine’s 2023 Teacher of the Year?
The first thing is telling positive stories about teachers and students. We all as humans need positivity and there’s a lot of challenge right now. The challenges are real and I’m not advocating for toxic positivity or pretending that everything is perfect. But it’s so important long term to highlight the amazing work that is happening and the greatness that exists in each school in the state.
Students for sure are impacted by a whole variety of factors, and the pandemic was really challenging for students and continues to be difficult for students and teachers. But they’re not irreparably harmed and broken. Students are super resilient and doing amazing things. We need to tell the world that and tell them that so that they hear that we really believe in them.
The second thing is about building relationships. How can we use the positive stories and the great work going on to highlight opportunities where students, teachers, and families can build relationships?
I also want to just listen to people. It’s so important to listen to each other, and in particular listening to students. Engaging with students, getting their feedback, and inviting them to have a seat at the table and shape their educational experience is really valuable.
What is your message to someone thinking about becoming a teacher?
My message would be that being a teacher is the greatest gift that has happened to me. I can’t imagine not being a teacher. The experiences I’ve had and the connections I’ve been able to make and the personal growth I’ve been able to make has been invaluable.
Spend enough time in classrooms with kids before deciding if teaching is or is not for you. Try not to make a snap judgement because every single day has not been amazing, but the whole journey has been. I want people to sit with it for some time and engage. The beauty of teaching is when you start to form these connections with kids, and they take time to form.
So my message would be to get in the classroom, keep working at it, commit to trying it for a good amount of time, and practice a lot of self-compassion. Understand that it’s going to take you time to get better at it as you go along. I believe that the more people spend time with young folks, and the more they engage with the practice of teaching the more they’ll fall in love with it.
What are the biggest misperceptions people have about teachers and schools right now?
There are two. The first one is this concept that teachers are interested in indoctrinating students and that teachers are interested in telling students what to think. What we’re trying to do is teach students how to think and how to be critical thinkers and be open minded. We want to empower students with information, but at no point are we telling students this is what you need to think, and this is what you need to believe. That’s counterintuitive to our entire goal.
What we’re trying to do is activate students’ minds. And also, what we know about kids is that they don’t want to be told what to do and they’re not going to respond to that. We’re just trying to create opportunities for kids. And by teaching kids how to read, write, analyze images, engage in scientific experiments, and understand math, all of these are unlocking doors for them so they can access the world around them. I want my students to leave this building and feel like they have enough agency in their life because they are educated enough to know how to make their own choices.
The second misperception is that students are worse than ever before. Of course there are students who exhibit big behaviors. I believe students have always exhibited big behaviors. Before the pandemic students exhibited big behaviors. Kids have always pushed against authority and tested boundaries, its almost what they’re supposed to do. I don’t think that things are different from the way things were before.
Students are not getting credit for the work they are doing, for the resilience they show, and for being the youngest generations of activists we’ve ever seen. I see 9th graders out there taking action for things they care about and being incredibly caring. I think they are very empathetic and very community oriented. I think students are doing a lot better than we give them credit for.
Anything else you want to share?
I’m super grateful for this opportunity. I never in my wildest dreams expected this. I wish every teacher was being recognized because they deserve it. What I’m hoping is that this year is an opportunity for me to share that I’m not some super teacher and I’m not a superhero. I’m just someone who loves it, is trying to get better every day, and trying to do right by kids every day. I want to highlight how awesome it is to be a teacher, how fortunate I am to be one, and how much I love doing it.