About 10 years ago, Andy Bryan, principal and sixth-through-eighth-grade teacher at the Airline Community School in Aurora, found himself, and his students, in a bit of a pickle. They were short a bus driver, and had no way to get kids to extracurricular activities.
Bryan, who this week retires at age 60 after 32 years at the 45-student K-8 school, did what most teachers at tiny, rural schools like Airline have to do regularly: he added another responsibility to his already full slate. In short order, he got his bus driving license, and started driving the bus himself.
“There probably aren’t a lot of principals that also drive the bus, I’ll give you that,” Bryan said. “But that’s what rural education is all about.”
Both Andy Bryan and his wife, Beth, now 64, who has taught special education at the school for nearly as long as her husband and also will retire this week, have worn countless hats during their tenure at the school, nestled in between blueberry barrens, glacial eskers and rolling hills, just off Route 9 near the Hancock-Washington county line.
“If the custodian is out, well, you’re going to clean up,” Andy Bryan said. “I’ve coached every sport we have. I was chess coach, too. In fact, I was the president of the Maine Chess Association. I think anyone that works at a small school like ours is used to having to wear a lot of hats. It’s very much a team effort. But that’s part of the joy of it.”
The Airline Community School is among the last of a rare breed of rural schools in Maine with fewer than 100 students, many of which closed over the past decade or more. Though consolidating resources ended up working for many school districts, both the Bryans agree the sense of intimacy and the personalized education that teachers can give students in small schools was, in many cases, lost.
However, it wasn’t lost at Airline, a part of AOS 47, which also includes the Dedham School and the Center Drive School in Orrington. Both the Bryans believe that what they lack in numbers or resources, they more than make up for in the personal connection that each teacher has with each student — and, more often than not, with students’ parents as well.
“There’s this almost utopian dynamic. Everybody knows each other. If your kid has a special dietary need, the cook will make sure they get what they need,” said Amherst resident Matt Smith, chair of Airline’s school committee, who has three children who have all attended the school. “We were going to move back to Bangor when our kids were starting school. Once we realized there was something really special about this place, we decided we were staying put.”
Standardized testing is not a top priority. Neither is making sure a child has a certain number of extracurricular activities on their resume so they can get into a prestigious school. For the Bryans and their colleagues at Airline, it’s about making sure each child is treated as a person first, a number, second — something they’re able to do because there are fewer than seven students per teacher.
“It’s not about numbers. It’s not about the competitive stuff,” Beth Bryan said. “Obviously you’re going to learn everything you need to learn, but it’s also about learning how to be a person in the world. It’s about learning how to be part of a community. Our kids are so good at so many things that can’t be measured by taking a test.”
Andy Bryan grew up in Waterville, the youngest of five kids. His father, Bill, worked in education his entire life, spending most of his career as director of admissions at Colby College. His sister, Ellen Elliott, a Dover-Foxcroft resident, said she sees her father’s passions for education, athletics and rural life in her brother.
“He really understood the value and richness of rural life,” Elliott said. “My dad had a big heart for rural kids. He used to select students to come to Colby not because of their college boards, but because of what they could contribute as a person. He was a big listener. And Andy is too.”
Bryan met his future wife, Beth, at the University of Maine. Neither had planned to go into education, with Beth studying anthropology and Andy studying classics. But once both graduated in the mid-1980s, they found work as substitutes at the Airline school. For Andy, substituting turned into becoming an education technician. Then full-time teaching jobs at the school opened and both got their teaching certificates and, in Beth’s case, a master’s degree.
“Now it’s been 32 years,” Andy Bryan said. “We never set out to do this, but this school has become our home. I don’t take for granted how lucky we are. Or that Beth and I were able to work together so closely all these years. And that our kids got to go here too.”
Neither of them is exactly sure what they’ll do now that they are retired. Like most teachers, the day did not end once class was dismissed, with Andy Bryan coaching sports year-round, with a special passion for cross-country, and Beth Bryan directing school plays. Most days, they’d arrive as the sun rose, and would not leave until after dark.
“I’m definitely looking forward to having a social life. The school was our social life,” Andy Bryan said. “We’ll probably stay involved in some capacity, volunteering. I feel like we have helped to put in place a philosophy and an approach to education that will outlast us.”
Smith, the school board chair, agrees.
“That culture doesn’t go away overnight,” he said. “They embody it. They’re the ones that taught us how to be what we are. And that’s incredibly, incredibly special.”