Anne Boucher, special education teacher at Brewer Community School, reads a book from behind a plexiglass divider to one of her students in October. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Ian M. Mette is associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine. He has recently co-authored a book, “The Essential Renewal of America’s Schools: A Leadership Guide for Democratizing Schools from the Inside Out,” with Carl Glickman, professor emeritus of education at the University of Georgia.

Teachers are doing incredible things throughout Maine. Every time I speak with teachers about their instruction and their hard work to help make their schools better places for children, I am moved by their efforts. Teaching on its own is a hard enough task — to do it during a pandemic and reach children in person and online is a herculean undertaking.

As I watch educators struggle to make it through a one-in-100-year pandemic, I question more and more what our education system has become as well as what we as a public expect from our schools. This time of year, society typically begins to think more deeply about what “really” matters — we set New Year’s resolutions and we look at life with a new and fresh lens. And believe it or not, I believe teachers have a pretty good pulse on how we might look at our system anew to address our societal ills and inequities.

There are teachers and administrators across our state who understand the work that we need to address for the children of Maine. These include addressing issues of chronic absenteeism, Eurocentric curricula, low numbers of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds accessing advanced classes, how technology can be used to address structural inequities, supports for teachers to better understand their own power and privilege, high levels of mental health issues experienced by students across Maine and funding inequities felt by rural school districts throughout the state. All of these make it clear to me that educators have a good idea of where we need to go next as a society — and that we need to intentionally shift the focus of our instruction and our expectations for education.

The past year has been a struggle for our country, and the experiences of Mainers are no different. If nothing more, 2020 has challenged us to examine the systems that we belong to and believe in. Examining the education system that is established throughout America is part of that challenge, and in the middle of all the struggle, the isolation, and the inequities that our children are experiencing, maybe we can begin to imagine a new system. Maybe, instead of looking at high-stakes testing measures that reinforce instruction that is repetitive and disconnected from the experiences of many children, we can empower young Mainers to examine the issues they are experiencing in their communities. Maybe, if we listen to educators, we can get students more engaged with their learning and give them hope that they can impact their world in a positive way.

However, making this shift in education cannot solely be determined by teachers in the classrooms. It has to be signaled at the state level, not only to reduce standardized testing during the pandemic but to look for permanent waivers from the federal requirement, and instead to focus on creative applications of knowledge to continue to help Maine advance into the 21st century. In order to address income inequalities, state legislators can also signal support for impoverished and rural communities. Figuratively, this means putting our money where our mouth is if we want to see better outcomes for Maine students.

A shift also needs to come at the district level. Not only do we need to encourage our teachers and administrators to support instruction that focuses on creation and production, but we also need to continue to talk to stakeholders about the issues they see in their community. A school district is not a closed system — it is the most accountable when it listens to issues brought up by students, parents and teachers in order to provide a rigorous, meaningful and engaging educational experience.

As we start a new year and say goodbye to one of the most difficult years in recent memory, let’s start to look at what education could be, not what it has become. Our educators have a good pulse on their students — they know what they need to be successful. So let’s listen to them, let’s allow them to intentionally address the inequities they see students experience everyday. And, let’s support them as we look towards the future. The children of Maine deserve nothing less.