BATH — When Lawrence Kovacs was named Sagadahoc County Teacher of the Year this month, it marked the third consecutive year that a Bath educator received the distinction.
Kovacs, a teacher in both Regional School Unit 1 gifted and talented and robotics programs, based mostly at Bath Middle School, was among approximately 300 people nominated as county teachers of the year, according to a state Department of Education press release.
Those chosen will move forward in a selection process that will include a video showcasing their classroom practices, a portfolio, school visits and an interview with a state panel. Three state finalists will be chosen, and the 2017 Maine Teacher of the Year will be announced at a surprise school assembly this fall.
Matt Hamilton, a former Bath Middle School guidance counselor and now a principal at Harpswell Coastal Academy, encouraged Karen Curley, a social worker at Bath Middle School, to nominate Kovacs.
“Although Lawrence is primarily a teacher of gifted and talented students, he is an advocate for all students,” Hamilton wrote in an April letter in support of Kovacs’ nomination. “He creates opportunities district-wide for students to challenge themselves and take risks academically, personally and socially.”
“Lawrence has high standards for students and helps them realize their own potential despite their own misgivings,” Curley wrote in an email Wednesday, calling that “the hallmark of a great teacher.”
Kovacs worked at Georgetown Central School for about five years before going out of the country for a year in 2009, then returned to teach a year at Phippsburg Elementary School. He started teaching gifted and talented students in 2011.
“Lawrence uses a variety of instructional and assessment methods to meet the needs of all students,” RSU 1 Superintendent Patrick Manuel said May 20. “He is an educator who is willing to explore new techniques and concepts to improve student learning. Lawrence has developed individual learning plans for students and is creative in providing students with real-world applications of their learning.
“In addition to Lawrence’s strong pedagogical skills, he possesses a positive, friendly demeanor that students, parents, staff and community members admire,” Manuel said. “Lawrence is a model educator who is greatly respected and admired throughout the school system and the community.”
Kovacs, a 51-year-old Bath resident with two children, also brought the robotics program to RSU 1.
“It’s collaborative problem-solving, it is using the fun of friendly competition to incentivize innovation and learning new skills,” he said in an interview May 20. “I’m a big advocate for taking risks early, with small consequences, and learning from both successes and mistakes.”
With the daytime schedule not enough to contain the program’s increasing popularity, robotics is becoming an after-school program. With offerings like an annual “sumo” competition – robots must knock each other out of a ring – as well as a robotics track meet, it’s easy to see why many students have been drawn in.
RSU 1’s Fundamental Learning on Water, or FLOW, outdoor expeditionary learning program is another idea Kovacs brought to the district, working with Hamilton and with strong support from RSU 1 administrators and teachers.
FLOW camping and canoe trips and team-building initiatives take place at the Wiscasset-based Chewonki Foundation. There, the middle school students learn how to sleep outside, set up tents, cook over an open fire, and navigate a canoe, all while detaching from electronic media, Kovacs said.
Kovacs, a former Outward Bound instructor, said “I’ve had this idea since I started teaching, that I really want to get kids outside … (and) into situations that are putting them in a learning zone, and demonstrating for them that learning happens everywhere, not just in a classroom. But also taking advantage of the fact that we live in this incredibly beautiful place.”
Calling the teacher of the year honor “equal parts rewarding and embarrassing,” Kovacs said, “I couldn’t pull off anything if I didn’t have amazing people who also felt the same way I did about these programs.”
Both FLOW and the robotics programs are offered to middle school students, at what Kovacs said is a critical development age between childhood and the teenage years. After starting work at Bath Middle School, “I realized I had found my people,” Kovacs said. “And my people are grades six, seven and eight. … When I got here, I was like, ‘Wow, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.'”
“I don’t think canoeing for a week is a silver bullet,” he continued, “but it definitely gives kids an opportunity to connect in ways that are different than the way we connect in a physical classroom … not just with each other, but also with caring adults.”
Because teachers accompany FLOW groups, “your social studies teacher is suddenly the guy snoring in the tent next to you, or your math teacher is the one who made the delicious pizza on the fire, or your science teacher really can’t steer a canoe,” he said. “We’re people.”
Along with the social aspects, being outside and adventuring “sort of primes your mind,” Kovacs said. “It puts you in an open place. You’re stimulated; it’s a novel experience, it’s a novel location.”
He cited a recent University of Chicago study that said youth who are engaged in middle school have better odds of leading a more productive, successful life as a member of society, than those who don’t.
“It is a very dynamic period of time in human development,” Kovacs said. “So if you can grab them now, and give them some experiences that help them build tools to navigate … (and) give them the desire to learn and challenge themselves, I feel like we’re setting them up in a good way.”
Kovacs’ selection as county Teacher of the Year follows the selections of Eric Varney and Johnna Stanton, teachers of science and English, respectively, at Morse High School the last two years.
Bath Middle School teacher Lawrence Kovacs, right, works with student Jacob Demers on a robot Demers built. Kovacs is Sagadahoc County’s Teacher of the Year.