PORTLAND — The new school year is always filled with new possibility, and new challenges.
That’s especially true for Talya Edlund, Maine’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, who left a job in the Cape Elizabeth schools to teach at Riverton Elementary School.
Edlund will be teaching fifth-grade writing, science and social studies when classes start Aug. 30 for all students except incoming kindergartners.
She looked for a job in the Portland schools, Edlund said in an interview Monday, because the city has “a lot of differing things to offer, and I like a challenge and to be constantly growing in my career.”
Riverton will be very different from what Edlund was accustomed to at Pond Cove Elementary School, she acknowledged, particularly since a large number of students at Riverton qualify for a free or reduced lunch and many come from immigrant families.
“It will be a change to work with a wide range of kids from a wide range of backgrounds who are multilingual,” Edlund said. But she’s excited to begin working at Riverton, which, she noted, is closely tied to the community.
Another reason Edlund was attracted to Riverton, she said, is because “the staff is committed to best practices and is responsive to student needs.”
She understands that the needs of the students at Riverton will be “quite different” from those in Cape Elizabeth.
“I will have to consider a lot of different aspects of the whole child and take into account everything from school supplies to homework,” she said. “That whole dynamic, including parent engagement, will play out quite differently.”
Edlund said the student-teacher ratio in her new classroom will be about the same as it was in Cape Elizabeth: she’ll have 24 students, while in Cape she had 23.
What’s surprising, though, is the makeup of her class roster, which consists of 18 boys and only six girls. She said having a classroom full of boys will be “another unique challenge” to look forward to.
And even though she comes from a white, middle-class background, Edlund said one of the things she’s most excited about in joining the Portland Public Schools is the superintendent’s initiative to attract more diverse staff.
“We all benefit from (exposure) to diversity, whether it’s in the classroom or leadership positions,” Edlund said.
Part of her own commitment to diversity, she said, is building up her classroom library so the books available include a lot of different choices, not just “a story about a white boy and his dog.”
“Providing rich literary choices and diverse voices is important,” Edlund said. “Children need to read books that build empathy and understanding. Reading widely is the strongest tool for success you can give any child.”
Edlund joined the staff at Pond Cove Elementary in 2004, not long after she and her husband moved to Maine from New York City. But her first job locally was running an afterschool program at Lincoln Middle School in Portland.
Ever since then, she said, it’s been Edlund’s goal to get a classroom of her own in the Portland schools, “even though I really loved my time in Cape.”
Edlund and her family now live in Cape Elizabeth, but when they first came to Maine they lived in Portland. They were attracted to the city, she said, because “it seemed progressive and community-oriented and we loved the school system and the proximity to the ocean.”
Edlund’s two children, ages 9 and 6, attend Pond Cove Elementary, but “for myself I wanted to get back into the Portland schools,” she said.
Part of her focus during her time as Teacher of the Year, Edlund said, was “leveraging social media to provide a positive narrative on teachers.”
That’s why Gov. Paul LePage’s comments during a public event last week – when he said teachers are “a dime a dozen” – disturbed her.
“Comments like that show he doesn’t know what’s going on in the classroom and it builds mistrust,” Edlund said. “It’s disheartening, but it also hurts kids and communities.”
This is not the first time that Edlund will teach at a school serving mostly low-income families. Prior to coming to Maine, she taught in a poor neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York.
“That helped her recognize how important it is for children to have individual attention whenever it’s needed,” Pond Cove Principal Kelly Hasson said when Edlund was named Teacher of the Year. “She continues to care about every one of her students and works hard to help them solve problems, discover and own their passions, and give them the confidence that they need to be their very best.”
This week, Edlund said, “I’m truly excited” about starting the new school year.
Talya Edlund celebrates being named Maine’s 2016 Teacher of the Year in October 2015 at Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth. Edlund has left Cape Elizabeth to teach at Riverton Elementary School in Portland.