Not everyone goes directly from high school to college to the classroom; in fact, many women have found their way into education through more circuitous routes.

Inspired by her elementary school teachers, Auburn resident Sandy Bixby knew she wanted to be an educator even before graduating from Lewiston High School in 1970. Although she went to college, she didn’t major in education – at first.

“As an only child, I went to Bliss College (in Lewiston) because my parents thought it would be good for me to stay closer to home, and they really didn’t have the money for tuition costs either,” she recalled. She easily earned an associate’s degree in medical secretarial sciences, and an internship brought her to a pediatrician’s office, again sparking her interest in working with kids. After graduation, she secured a position as a ward secretary at Central Maine Medical Center – on the pediatric ward.

“I realized I wanted to work with kids in a different way than through the hospital,” she said, and because she still yearned to work with children in an educational setting, she began taking courses in 1973 to complete her bachelor’s degree through the University of Maine (Portland-Gorham). During that time, she ran into a former teacher, Janice Plourde, who suggested she might want to apply for an ed tech position with the Lewiston School Department. She did, got the job, and continued taking courses. By 1975, she had returned to Martel School – her old elementary school- and was working with people she had as teachers. Student teaching followed soon after.

“I student-taught first and third grades, and I loved them both,” she said. She completed her degree that year, “but not many teachers were being hired at that time, so I went back to being an ed tech.”

In 1978, she took on the challenge of establishing a Title I program supplementing math and reading skills at Lewiston Middle School. “I had a staff of six and was the person on-site who made sure everything was going right,” she said. Interestingly, instead of returning to teach in the classroom, Bixby kept moving into one leadership position after another. In 1979, she became the Title I Coordinator – supervising the program at five of Lewiston’s nine elementary schools – and in 1983, she became one of three Special Education Coordinators for the district.

“And that’s where I’ve been ever since, working with various schools,” she said. “The program has now grown to include three additional coordinators.”

In the meantime, in 1981 she had earned a Master’s Degree in Professional Teaching Exceptionality; in 1994, she completed a second Master’s from USM in Educational Administration.

Bixby recalls facing the same kind of budget crunch in the early 1980s as schools face today. “There were no music, physical education, art or guidance programs in the elementary schools,” she said. “Now we’re beginning to feel the crunch of having to cut back in the face of mandates we have to follow, including local testing and accountability.”

The most difficult challenge is providing adequate programming to meet children’s needs,” she reflected. “You have to get creative. Children who used to be in self-contained classrooms are now included in the mainstream as much as possible. It takes time to integrate them, to figure out how to adapt instruction for that child. I work as part of the team providing those services.”

Bixby is also responsible for interpreting tests, first to evaluate them, then determining eligibility and finally providing the program that meets the needs of the child “in the least restrictive environment,” an aspect involving the entire team.

“I feel like my career in education has come full circle,” she reflected. “I attended Martel School as a student, completed my student teaching there, was an ed tech there, Title One Coordinator there, and now, at the end of my career, I’m the Special Education Coordinator there.

“Education is a very rewarding profession, especially when you don’t lose sight of the reason you’re there,” she continued. “It’s important not to get caught up in the things you can’t control. It’s the teacher who makes the difference . . . You have to love kids, no matter their challenges, see them as individuals, recognize their talents and how they can contribute to the classroom. That doesn’t come out of books – it comes from the heart.”

When Cheryl Lang of Turner decided she would pursue a career in education, she was 35, married and the mother of two. “I had held secretarial jobs, been a tax preparer, and thought I would eventually take over my parents’ store (North Auburn Cash Market). I’d done a host of things,” she recalled.

“When my kids were in school, I did a lot of volunteer work. I felt a certain comfort level being in the classroom, even though I’d never pictured myself as a teacher,” she said. “I was inspired by my children’s teachers.”

Later, when she worked for L.L. Bean, Lang was involved with the Junior Achievement program. “Working with kids sparked an interest, and I began to think about becoming a teacher.”

Even with a bachelor’s degree in business, it took her three more years to obtain her teaching credentials. “I was working full time and had a secure job, but I went back to school for one class, just to see,” she said. “At that time, I realized I’d be 90 by the time I finished just taking a course here and there, so I decided to quit my job and go to school full-time.”

Her biggest roadblock was her impression that some of the people closest to her – family and friends – were not in favor of her decision. “If you’re uncertain and you don’t get support, you question if you’re doing the right thing,” she said. “Thankfully, I had good support from my husband.”

Her first job is the same one she has today – teaching eighth graders at Oxford Hills Middle School.

“I never pictured myself in middle school; my practicum was first grade, but the student teaching was 7th and 8th and 5th, yet I saw myself as connecting with younger students.”

A language arts teacher, she’s surprised to have landed and stayed at the middle school “because it’s probably the most challenging age level of all,” she admitted.

Lang, 49, recalled a moment during her first year of teaching she’ll never forget. “I had a horrible student. He was dropping the F-bomb all the time, and once he sent his books flying across the classroom. Of course, he was suspended,” she related. “By the end of the year (He had been a non-reader at the start.), I had him reading John Grisham. I even got a hug. He was my worst nightmare and turned out to be one of my most favorite students of all.”

The biggest challenge she faces is not giving up on any of the kids. “With some of them, you just have to wonder if you have it within yourself to keep going. In a perfect world, you’d like to think you have enough to reach them all, but it’s hard.”

Her advice to others considering education as a career is not to get in it for money or schedule or benefits. “You’d better get in it for love,” she stressed. “Your heart has to be in it, and you’d better have a supportive spouse. People think I’ve been on vacation for two weeks, but I’ve been grading papers and reports, planning lessons and getting ready. When we watch TV, I’m grading papers. On a long trip, I’m grading papers. It does consume you.”

For Jill Hyland, 31, teaching at a public high school in Maine isn’t at all what she envisioned when she decided to become a teacher.

Now living in Brunswick, married, and with a baby on the way, Hyland moved around a lot as a kid. During her sophomore year in college, she studied abroad in Ecuador and Peru. At that time, she decided she wanted to teach English overseas. “Most of my plan worked,” she says, “except that I’m teaching here. I still get to do what I love, which is working with kids from around the world.”

Hyland is beginning her third year as Auburn’s English Language Learners teacher at Edward Little High School. “It was a long road,” she said.

With an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Teaching English as a Second Language followed by a master’s degree in Reading Education with a focus on ELL, she traveled, taught and studied in various places across the globe, “developing an affection and respect for different cultures and people,” she said. “Each experience gained, each culture and country encountered, humbled me and allowed me to become who I am today.”

Her first “real” job in education was at a therapeutic boarding school in Northwestern Montana. “I worked in an alternative outdoor educational setting and taught in a home school environment and loved it. Since then, I’ve tutored, waited tables, struggled, and now I’m here.”

Hyland is surprised she ended up at a high school; she thought she would teach ELL students in college, but after being in Maine for a couple of years, the position at ELHS opened up mid-year and she was hired. “I couldn’t have been luckier with my placement at EL, with the staff and support I have here. Some days may be hard, but they’re always worth it.”

She enjoys so many things about her days at school. “The way the kids constantly make me laugh, the connections, the growth, the relationships and the trust that has been established have made teaching at this level more rewarding than I ever thought possible,” she admitted.

Hyland says her biggest challenge is actually the little stuff. “I’m emotionally attached to my kids, sort of like a second mother,” she explained. “When they get picked on or if comments are made, it makes me angry, and I want people to learn about this group of students before they judge them. Ignorance has no excuse, in my eyes. You don’t have to agree with me or with what I think, but you at least have to be respectful of it. Everyone deserves a chance.”

She, too, cautioned future educators not to get into this field if you’re not in it for the kids.

“Education is hard, the pay isn’t that good and some days you might even cry,” she said, “but it’s those days in between, when the kids get it and they light up, and you know you’ve given them tools to help them better their lives” that make the tough times worth the effort.

“All in all,” she concluded, “even if I won the lottery this afternoon, I would still come back tomorrow.”


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