May 28, 2020
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As Maine teachers grieve loss of traditions, one small school deepens the conversation

Courtesy of Amanda Prouty
Courtesy of Amanda Prouty
Nicole Spinney, a teacher and coach at Veazie Community School, is pictured on the last day she collected supplies from her classroom, March 26.

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Nicole Spinney, a teacher and coach at Veazie Community School, had been holding out a little hope that she would be able to return at the end of the school year to give her graduating eighth graders one more hug. As a parent, she had wanted her 17-year-old daughter to experience her high school graduation.

Instead, every day, Spinney walks down to her basement where she has a corner to work in, and works on maintaining the relationships she’s built with her 42 math and science students, who are in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. She meets regularly with her classes over Zoom but tries to make the time less about instruction and more about checking in, keeping a bit of levity, and listening.

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Now, given that the Veazie school will remain closed for the rest of the school year after Maine’s education commissioner recommended on Tuesday that all schools do so, Spinney has given up what little hope she had that normalcy would return by June. What she and many other teachers are left with is a feeling not usually associated with education in springtime: grief.

As schools grapple with the logistics of remote teaching, food deliveries to students, contingency plans if teachers fall sick, and how to adapt special education services and summer programming, it could be easy to forget the little-discussed issue of teachers’ own emotional health.

But the Veazie school, which has about 30 full- and part-time staff members serving 147 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, has decided that students aren’t the only people it should check in with regularly to provide support. Every Thursday a social worker from Northern Light Acadia Hospital now holds drop-in, “coffee hour” Zoom calls with the teachers to help them process and talk through the personal and professional ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Teachers are selfless individuals. They put themselves second all day, every day because their students come first,” said Matthew Cyr, the school’s principal and superintendent. Now, teachers might be working out of a closet, a bathroom or their vehicle to avoid being interrupted by their own little ones, he said, while simultaneously dealing with their own financial or household worries. “Finding that balance right now is the difficult piece.”

In addition, the social worker, Chris McLaughlin, associate vice president of community and pediatric services at Acadia, is starting off the school’s Tuesday staff meetings with words of wisdom, discussion about adopting new habits and information on additional resources.

And starting on Friday, Wilcox Wellness & Fitness will provide remote group training sessions to school staff as part of the effort to maintain their overall health. The training is paid for by the local parent-teacher organization.

It’s not just health care workers who are at risk of burnout.

“Folks don’t feel a whole lot of control. There are feelings of helplessness around this. And that closure piece: Kids were literally in school one day and home the next,” McLaughlin said. “We want to make sure the structure is in place to respond to teachers’ needs over the course of the next several months.”

McLaughlin hopes more schools follow suit, as all educators are facing similar challenges.

After a period of panic, people are starting to build new routines and schedules, he said. Some might feel pressure to fit more into their days, but it’s important to make time for oneself and be deliberate about it. Put reminders of fun, upcoming events, such as virtual social gatherings, in your calendar. Positive affirmations can go there, too, so they pop up throughout the week, he said. Build new family traditions.

The check-ins with staff originated in an indirect way. The Veazie Community School had planned a series of forums this winter for students’ families to gather with McLaughlin and discuss the issues that many young people face, such as eating disorders, anxiety, bullying and suicide, Cyr said.

The school held one event in its library. Then the coronavirus pandemic shut down the building and all in-person meetings, effective March 9.

But the concerns about wellbeing didn’t go away. Rather, they magnified — and not just for students but teachers, too, he said. So he and Lexie Dineen, the school’s counselor, added on the virtual gatherings between McLaughlin and the teachers.

McLaughlin had expected teachers to express fears about health risks. Instead, he has noticed they are more worried about the wellbeing of their students and are mourning the loss of students’ traditional rites of passage, as well as the loss of their everyday life.

It’s teachers’ job to recognize the emotional needs of students, said Spinney, who also coaches softball and cross country, co-facilitates the civil rights team and student council, co-leads a robotics team, and serves as the school’s gifted and talented coordinator.

“I’m worried about certain students who needed to be at school every day just to have that routine. I’m worried about the connections I had and how students are doing,” Spinney said.

She thinks about students missing out on interactions with one another and not getting to experience the end-of-year awards ceremonies or the eighth grade trip. She was going to have sisters play together on the softball team for the first time, which won’t happen now.

She is heartbroken for her own daughter who attends Brewer High School and hasn’t been able to participate in her last season of track, she said. Instead of parents planning for project graduation, they are now trying to figure out how to celebrate the graduating seniors.

“We get it. We understand,” Spinney said. “But it doesn’t make it any less sad.”

She has welcomed seeing teachers’ wellbeing rise to the forefront of discussion and values hearing what her colleagues are going through. It helps knowing that, even in isolation, they are not alone.

“We’re all in this. We’re all understanding each other’s struggles, and I think that’s a good thing about Veazie, is that no matter what’s going on we’re all there to help each other,” she said.

Watch: What does returning to normal look like?


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