While it came as no surprise to many in the Rangeley community that Michelle Laliberte was named Franklin County’s Teacher of the year, it certainly came as a surprise to Laliberte who was in the produce section of the grocery store when she got the call, “I was picking out my avocados and kept saying are you sure?!”

To receive such recognition, a candidate must first be nominated by a member of the school community. In this case, Laliberte was nominated by Kathryn Kay, a parent of a Rangeley Lakes Regional School (RLRS) Pre-K student who wrote, “Mrs. Laliberte is a wonderful PreK teacher for many reasons. She is warm, caring, and patient. Her calm demeanor and zest for fun and creativity helps all the students feel comfortable and enjoy their time at school. This is so important because PreK is their first introduction to school and my daughter and her classmates love being there. Mrs. Laliberte has made my daughter feel so at ease and welcome that she has really broken out of her shell and overcome her intense shyness around other kids. She values play time in addition to learning and tries to get the students outside daily, whether it be exploring in the woods or painting on the snowbanks. She is wonderful at communicating with parents and getting everyone involved with what they are doing in their classroom. We get constant updates through various means of communication and real time photos and videos of the kids during their day. Mrs. Laliberte truly makes learning fun for the kids, teaches teamwork and responsibility to very young kids with regular assigned classroom “jobs,” and involves the students’ families to help ignite the passion for learning both in and outside of the classroom.”

I can also personally and happily attest that Laliberte seemed a naturally talented teacher from the beginning, as my own daughter had the benefits of having her as her kindergarten teacher almost fifteen years ago. As any parent knows, leaving your child in someone else’s care, can be incredibly stressful. Unlike a lot of people in Rangeley, I was ‘from away’, and so did not have family or longtime friends in the neighborhood that I could trust. So it meant so very much to me for my daughter to have a positive experience. I got lucky. First with Mary Su Richards where my daughter Sophie attended Keep Country Daycare and Rainbow School, and then with Michelle Laliberte. I remember my daughter always looked forward to going to school.

Coincidentally she called me while I was drafting this article, and so I asked her if she remembered Laliberte as her kindergarten teacher. “Oh yes, I remember, I loved her! Specifically, I remember no one was afraid of making a mistake or scared of getting into trouble because it was never a punishment thing, it was more of a learning opportunity for all of us.” This is one of the keys to Laliberte’s success. When the classroom is not to be feared, but welcoming, learning can become an exciting and ongoing exploration, and the benefits can last a lifetime. The ability to give such a gift is the mark of some of the best teachers.

That being said, Laliberte did not always know that she wanted to be a teacher. “I thought I wanted to be a nurse for a while. I have always been surrounded by young children. My mother left the workforce when I was little to stay home with my brother and me. She started a licensed daycare “Mumma Linda’s.” I enjoyed working with young children my whole life. I also worked in my elementary school as an aide to the first-grade teacher my Junior and Senior Year. It took me transferring colleges and having a roommate in the Early Childhood Program at UMF to realize this is what I wanted for my future. It became my passion.” The importance of bright beginnings is in keeping with her early childhood education passion. “My goal as an educator is to have our students enter school happy. I want their first experiences to be positive and I want them to love school. I strive to have open communication with families. I truly believe we are a team. The parents and the school. We may not always agree but we can agree that we love each child and want what is best for them. I take pride in my relationships I make with my families and my students.”

Now looking back over her twenty year career, when prompted to offer advice to those in the beginning stages of a profession in education, Laliberte offered “Teaching is a career that will take over your life. My advice to new teachers is to set boundaries. Take time for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Laliberte received her undergraduate degree in Early Childhood Education and then her Master’s of Science in Early Childhood Education, both from the University of Maine at Farmington. Officially, her career started twenty years ago at RLRS back in 2001.

Receiving the Franklin County Teacher of the Year award on the twentieth anniversary of your career could not have come at a better time in that it put an unexpected bright note at the end of a challenging year. Laliberte confessed, “I would say this year has been the hardest year of my career.”

Due to pandemic, many have become acutely aware of the strength it takes to successfully instruct children under less-than-ideal circumstances. But what if you, yourself are a parent? At the end of a long and trying day, successfully transitioning from teacher to parent is commendable. Mustering the strength to meet the expectations of your own parental goals and responsibilities is not easy; it takes fortitude.

As a mother of three, her responsibilities do not end when the school lets out and I asked how she manages to juggle it all. “I am still trying to figure this one out. Covid was very hard on me mentally as a mom as it was for all, I am sure. The struggle between family always coming first and doing your job was very hard. I never felt like my own children who were home and needing me were getting 100% of me. I still feel bad about this and probably always will.”

Putting in those extra hours is something that Doris Mitchell, a close colleague of Laliberte and a fifth-grade teacher at RLRS commented on. “I have worked with Shelli for many years, and I know that it is her desire to develop a love of learning in the youngest of our students. She dedicates hours of work to this end.”

The long hours do take their toll, and so when asked what the greatest challenge of teaching was, she responded, “To know when to shut off work. This career like many others is evolving. You can always do more and do better. Your job is never done. You have to set boundaries for yourself to stay healthy and be your best in all aspects of your life, not just your job.”

Fortunately, there is often a bright side to a demanding job. In this case, it’s her co-workers. She has a well-established support network that she fully appreciates. “I work with the best team.” Laliberte explained, “We all share the same vision and work hard for all kids. I mention my team a lot because I feel very lucky to work with the people I do at RLRS. They have shaped me into the person I am. I am very proud of the people I work with.”

The feeling is mutual. Robin George, Middle School English Language Art teacher had this to say, “Shelli…she is just a joy in every way. She has some magic with little ones. They love her, they laugh, they learn. I really think it is inherent in her deepest self, as she grew up watching her mom, who had a daycare business and I think Shell learned to love children before she even knew she loved children. As a colleague, she is kind and would do anything for anyone else. She is so humble – never does she take herself too seriously. If she’s having a bad day, she’ll say it. She puts herself out there every day for the betterment of our school and is always driven by what’s best for kids. Simply put, she combines her heart with her educational expertise and the result is magic in the classroom.”

RLRS Principal Georgia Campbell is an enthusiastic supporter as well. “Mrs. Laliberte is one of the most dedicated teachers I have had the privilege of working with. She always puts kids first and advocates for the best learning experience possible for her students. She plays a leadership role as the PK-2 Team Leader and serves on our school’s Leadership Team. She is the first to volunteer for any task and will go above and beyond to help her colleagues. We are so lucky to have her as a teacher in our school and so proud of her accomplishments thus far. Congratulations Shelli!!!

2021 Franklin County Teacher of the Year, Michelle Laliberte seen here with one of her Pre-K students Saul Ellis.

It comes as no surprise that Laliberte still has continued positive impact goals for the future. “One thing I would love to work on later in my career is accessibility for quality daycare programs for all ages throughout our community, county and state. We are very lucky in our community. We have daycare centers and preschools that offer great opportunities for families. I feel blessed that my family got the opportunity to have Belle White and Mary Sue Richards as their providers. I often joke that if it wasn’t for Mary Sue my children might not be potty trained or know how to ride a bike! All children should have a Mary Sue or Belle and many others that care for children in our community that I do not know of. If they need to have care while mom or dad are working, it should be from licensed high-quality programs. I want this accessibility for all children.”

However, for now, Laliberte is just thankful for all that she is a part of and all that RLRS  has already accomplished. “I consider our Pre-K program a peak for my career. We worked for over 10 years to get a public pre-k in our district. I am very proud of the work our team did to make this a possibility for our littlest learners and their families. I love that we are a Pre-K-12 and can watch our students all the way up until they graduate. We work as a team not just for our littlest learners but also our oldest ones. It is rewarding to see students doing well in the upper grades and getting to celebrate that with their current teachers.

Along with her dedicated and supportive colleagues and the children in her class who she appreciates every day, she also wanted to be sure and thank three children in particular: her two daughters Mya and Brooke and her son, Eben.

My three children also deserve a shout out as well. Being a teacher’s kid is not easy. Your summer is often spent at school. My children help me every year set up the classroom, copy materials, make centers. I am a very lucky mom.”

They are lucky to have you too Shelli. As are all the children at RLRS who have stepped through your classroom doors. Sincere congratulations for a very well-deserved honor Shelli!

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