Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series examining the impact of teacher shortages in local schools.
SULLIVAN — For Katelyn and Logan Riggs, teaching in Maine has required a lot of do-overs.
During the summer of 2018, the couple moved from Southern California to begin teaching in Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24).
Despite their California teaching certifications, neither is fully certified in Maine. Both must pass standardized exams known as the Praxis tests and Logan must complete additional coursework.
“They don’t make it easy for people [coming from] out of state,” Katelyn said.
As schools face dwindling applicant pools, they must work harder to recruit teachers, area school officials said. When applicants come from other states, schools have the additional task of getting them certified in Maine.
Maine’s certification standards are among the most stringent in the country, said Kelli Deveaux, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
“If you have a teaching certification in Maine, you can teach at many other places,” she said.
The reverse is not true, however. Maine doesn’t have any interstate agreements — which teachers and school officials colloquially call “reciprocity” — that would allow teachers with certifications elsewhere to teach here, said Janet Jordan, human resources manager for RSU 24.
For Katelyn and Logan, getting credentialed in Maine has been the most difficult part of their move.
Katelyn holds two California special education certifications — one for working with students with mild to moderate disabilities and another for those with moderate to severe issues.
“I have two credentials in California and I couldn’t even get one here,” she said.
She was able to obtain a conditional certification in Maine, which is good for three years. It allowed her to serve as a resource teacher at Peninsula School last year. This year, she will move to a similar position at Mountain View Elementary School.
In order to become fully certified, however, Katelyn must pass multiple Praxis tests, including three core area exams and additional tests in her special education specialty. Fees for individual Praxis tests range from $90 to $146, according to the Praxis website.
“I already spent over $500 on testing in California,” she said.
For her husband, the list is even longer. Logan was originally hired as an educational technician III for a life skills class at Mountain View. This designation allows him to provide instruction as long as a fully certified teacher assists with lesson plans.
In February, with a conditional certification, he took over as a long-term substitute teacher for a kindergarten class, a position he continues to hold going into the next school year.
Logan said he has to retake many of the same classes he took in California because subject areas were grouped differently there than they are here. A review of his credentials by the Maine Department of Education found him to be one class short of what he needs in several subject areas. He will also have to pass several Praxis tests.
Still, Logan called the process “a minor inconvenience,” and said he believes will be worth it.
He and Katelyn said they want a home and family in a nice area, which would have been financially unattainable where they grew up. Plus, they love it here.
Both said they’re grateful that Maine will allow them to teach, even if it comes with restrictions.
“In California, they won’t let you teach until you’re fully certified,” Katelyn said.
The state Department of Education does make provisions allowing schools to hire someone with experience in a career other than teaching as long as that person has a bachelor’s degree, Deveaux said.
Although that can be done, it’s not particularly easy, said Scott Porter, superintendent of Machias Bay Area Schools.
In addition to passing the Praxis tests, the prospective teacher would need to take 12 to 24 credits in teaching methods, which equates to one or two semesters of full-time course work.
“It’s hard to work and do that at the same time,” he said.
Because of the difficulty, the district rarely hires applicants choosing teaching as a second career, Porter said.
But not all schools have a pool of certified teachers to choose from. At Cherryfield Elementary School, Seaira Smith has served as a long-term substitute since 2015 without a full certification. Because she is not yet certified, she has had to reapply for the teaching position every year. She has been the only applicant, said Katherine Mayo-Reese, school principal and superintendent.
Currently, Smith is certified as an ed tech III, according to Deveaux. Like Logan Riggs, Smith can serve as a long-term substitute as long as a fully certified teacher assists with lesson plans.
“I don’t think people realize how much a teacher has to go through to be a teacher,” Mayo-Reese said.
Although Mayo-Reese acknowledged having an ed tech give instruction isn’t ideal, she praised Smith for eagerness and initiative.
“She could walk out the door and get 10 offers,” said Mayo-Reese. In fact, Smith was offered a job at Ella Lewis last year, but turned it down to continue to teach in Cherryfield.
Even when schools find teachers, keeping them can be a challenge, school officials said. Teachers leave their positions due to retirement, a desire to live closer to family in other areas or even because of the commute.
Elizabeth Nichols-Goodliff teaches at three schools — in Baileyville, Woodland and Princeton — in the Eastern Maine Area School System. She lives in East Machias.
“The commute in the winter was terrible and scary,” she said. “[Route] 191 was not well maintained and was dangerous to travel on.”
She plans to stay at least a year, until her child graduates high school, but then may look elsewhere.
Not all area schools reported problems filling positions, however. As of July 19, the Ellsworth School Department had had only four openings on a teaching staff of about 120, said Superintendent Dan Higgins.
Overall, from Jan. 1 to July 19, the district had 11.5 positions to fill. But, 6.5 of them were new positions to handle increases in the student population, he said.
Although Higgins has seen the applicant pool shrink, Ellsworth’s proximity to Acadia National Park and Bangor are attractive to job seekers.
“We’re more well known in the state now than we were 20 years ago,” he said.