Q&A With Maine’s 2023 Teacher of the Year Matt Bernstein

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.

Matt Bernstein with the student who nominated himWhat 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.

Aroostook County Teachers of the Year Lead Effort to Face Regional Teacher Shortages

Aroostook County Teachers of the Year (CTOY) Leslie Marquis (2017), Bill Guerette (2018), Kim Barnes (2019), Jocelyn Saucier (2020), and Heather Anderson (2022), along with Maine Teachers of the Year (TOY) Elaine Hendrickson (2001) and Alana Margeson (2012) came together to plan, The Future of Aroostook County Education Symposium, or otherwise known as FACES, on November 17th at Caribou Community School.

Current teachers, ed techs and paraprofessionals, interested high school students, pre-service teachers, administrators, career/guidance counselors, community partners, policymakers, and higher education representatives enjoyed an evening of conversation, collaboration, and visioning to address the critical need to both draw and keep dedicated educators in our schools as we face an unprecedented time of teacher workforce shortages in Aroostook County, Maine, and nationally.

Maine DOE Educator Excellence Coordinator Emily Doughty, Educate Maine Program Specialist Kaitlin Young, and Valley Unified School District Superintendent Ben Sirois served as keynote speakers to ground conversations about teacher recruitment and retention. Delta Kappa Gamma Society of Women Educators also supported the evening event.

“In true Aroostook County fashion, we ‘rolled up our sleeves’ and dug into the what, why, and how of teacher recruitment and retention,” said 2019 Aroostook CTOY and 8th grade Teacher Kim Barnes.

Governor Mills, Commissioner Makin Help Celebrate 2022 Maine County Teachers of the Year at Annual Tailgate Gala

The 2022 County Teachers of the Year and the recently named 2023 Maine Teacher of the Year Matt Bernstein were celebrated recently at the 2022 Teacher of the Year Tailgate Gala. The Gala is an annual celebration of the program honoring the hard work and dedication of these teachers and the teaching profession.

The event was held outdoors under a tent at Geiger, in Lewiston, a long-time supporter of the Maine Teacher of the Year (TOY) Program. A delicious lunch was served by students from the Lewiston Regional Technical Center’s The Green Ladle Food Truck, a part of the Center’s Culinary programing.

Present and legacy State and County Teachers of the Year, along with their families, friends, colleagues, and administrators traveled from across Maine to gather together on a sunny day to celebrate and honor the innovation, dedication, excellence, and hard work of these amazing educators.

Images with the logo ‘Everyone’s Story Includes a Teacher’ is the property of the Arizona Educational Foundation and used with permission.

In addition to an awards ceremony that honored the 2022 County Teachers of the Year, the event featured remarks from Educate Maine Executive Director Jason Judd, 2022 Maine TOY Kelsey Stoyanova, Governor of Maine Janet T. Mills, Education Commissioner Pender Makin, and 2023 TOY Matt Bernstein. Program sponsors were also present, many offering words of appreciation and admiration to the educators in the audience, stressing the importance of education.

Another annual tradition of the Teacher of the Year Gala is for the Maine Secretary of State to provide a specialty license plate to the Teacher of the Year. We were honored to host Secretary of State Shenna Bellows who presented Bernstein with the license plate this year.

The Maine Department of Education along with its dedicated Maine TOY Program partners Educate Maine, the Maine State Board of Education, and the Maine County and State Teacher of the Year Association would like to extend a sincere dept of gratitude to the program’s funders and sponsors: Bangor Savings Bank, Dead River Company, Geiger, Maine State Lottery, Hannaford, Unum, and the Silvernail Family.

The Maine Teacher of the Year program is administered by Educate Maine, a business-led education advocacy organization, in partnership with the Maine Department of Education, the Maine State Board of Education, and the Maine County and State Teachers and County of the Year Association (MCSTOYA). To learn more about the Maine Teacher of the Year Program visit https://www.mainetoy.org/

2022 County Teachers of the Year


2022 Maine Teacher of the Year Kelsey Stoyanova Attends NASA Space Camp with Teachers Across the Nation

Each year teachers from across the nation are invited to participate in an opportunity of a lifetime through the National Teacher of the Year (NTOY) program. NASA’s Space Academy for Educators is a place for all of the National Teachers of the Year to come together for a professional learning experience in space exploration.

“Before going to camp, as an English teacher, I felt some apprehension that I wouldn’t excel in the same ways that my NTOY colleagues in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields might,” said 2022 Maine Teacher of the Year Kelsey Stoyanova. “I quickly came to realize that there are so many career paths that exist within the realm of space and space exploration that I never expected.”

Held at NASA’s Space Camp Headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama, the Space Academy for Educators program includes authentic astronaut training simulators and activities developed to promote learning in a classroom setting. Curriculum includes NASA-inspired lesson plans and is correlated to the National Science Education Standards.

Upon understanding more about what the experience was all about, Stoyanova explained that, “many people look at anything NASA and space related and think SCIENCE, but the truth is, space exploration programs employ technical writers, PR specialists, photographers, architects, and more.”

Some of Stoyanova’s favorite experiences include travelling to the ISS via spacecraft and having to solve anomalies with friends and fellow mission specialists from New York and Michigan, getting “dropped” from a helicopter into the water and having to swim to a rescue rendezvous point (and ultimately having to get rescued), and launching rockets from the rocket launch pad where her team sported their Live and Work in Maine t-shirts which she had brought with her give to fellow educators.

She also got to experience the simulation of the space craft tumble in the multi-axis trainer. “[It] flipped me every which way and we all couldn’t stop laughing,” as well as the simulation of the moon walk.  “I’ve never felt so weightless — and I perfected the moon RUN,” said Stoyanova.

What topped all the once in a lifetime opportunities and experiences, Stoyanova says, was the unequivocal appreciation that exuded from everyone hosting educators at Space Camp that week. “The whole week was filled with gratitude at what educators do to help grow the next generation of thinkers, creators, speakers, innovators, and explorers.”

In fact, one thing that stood out to our Maine representative was the many counselors there who are now adults but were once campers. “My team leader, Sydney, is now a middle school science teacher while another is in school to be an aeronautical engineer. As space camp alum they continue to go back year after year to inspire the future generation to be innovators of space exploration in some way,” said Stoyanova. “Every kid should have the opportunity to go to space camp,” she added.

Stoyanova also found inspiration in learning that as part of the Artemis I mission which is set to try launching again in late September, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion will have Maine made pieces that will aid in going to the moon. Two companies in Maine, both in Biddeford contributed to the building of the spacecraft being launched in the Artemis I mission (learn more here). “It takes so much more than just what you see on launch day for a successful mission.” For Stoyanova this is a wonderful example of the idea that in education, every lesson matters and students find success when they are able to connect and apply their learning to the world around them.

“My experiences at space camp, as a scientist, a builder, an inventor, a mission specialist, an astronaut, a critical thinker, and team member truly demonstrated my belief that authentic learning happens through experiences where students can see themselves in roles or actually be part of the outcome,” said Stoyanova. “As a lifelong learner, Space Camp holds lessons I’ll cherish forever.”


MEDIA RELEASE: Maine’s 2022 County Teachers of the Year Announced

Governor Janet Mills, Education Commissioner Pender Makin, Education Leaders Honored the Teachers at the State Capitol

Augusta, ME—Sixteen Maine teachers were announced as 2022 County Teachers of the Year today at a ceremony in the Hall of Flags at the Maine State Capitol Building. Governor Janet Mills joined Education Commissioner Pender Makin, Educate Maine Executive Director Jason Judd, State Board of Education Chair Fern Desjardins, 2022 Maine Teacher of the Year Kelsey Stoyanova, and Maine County and State Teachers of the Year Association Co-President Shana Goodall to announce the new class of County Teachers of the Year.

As part of the Maine Teacher of the Year Program, hundreds of teachers across Maine are nominated by a member of their school community. Through a rigorous application process, one teacher from each county is selected as a County Teacher of the Year by a panel of teachers, principals, and business community members within the county.

“It is a privilege to congratulate Maine’s 2022 County Teachers of the Year,” said Governor Janet Mills. “As the daughter of a long-time public school teacher, I know how hard each of these teachers works every day to make sure our kids have the best shot at success. I am so grateful for all they do for our students, our communities, and our state, and I promise that my Administration will do all we can to support them.”

“It’s such an honor to celebrate these extraordinary teachers and elevate them as true ambassadors for all Maine teachers and the teaching profession,” said Education Commissioner Pender Makin. “These teachers were nominated by students, colleagues, and parents for the difference they make every day in the lives of their students, for their innovation and leadership, and for their commitment to their schools and communities. You are all true heroes, and the Maine Department of Education is so grateful for all you do.”

“We are so proud of the 2022 County Teacher of the Year cohort. They are truly remarkable teachers and we look forward to working with them throughout their year of recognition,” said Educate Maine Executive Director Jason Judd.

2022 County Teachers of the Year:

Maine County Teachers of the Year serve as ambassadors for teachers, students, and quality education state-wide throughout the year. The Maine County Teachers of the Year are available to make presentations to local and regional organizations. Throughout the summer, they will continue to participate in an intensive Maine State Teacher of the Year selection process.

The Maine Department of Education’s Teacher of the Year Program is administered through a collaborative partnership with Educate Maine. To learn more about the Teacher of the Year Program visit: https://www.mainetoy.org/. The event was also broadcast live on the Maine Department of Education’s YouTube page.