USM partnership puts high schoolers on the path to teaching

One day last year, while stressing about finding a future career, Wade Leavitt wondered what it would be like to teach. 

He was a junior at Westbrook High School at the time, so he’d already had his fair share of teachers, but he’d never been one himself. Teaching might be fun, he thought. Maybe high school? Maybe science or math? 

So when the University of Southern Maine teamed up with the Westbrook school system last fall to offer the Westbrook Future Teachers Academy, Leavitt jumped at it. High school juniors and seniors take one college Education class per semester and shadow teachers in the field. They earn college credit and get an early look at teaching as a career. 

For Levitt, now 17 and a senior, the program has solidified teaching as a good potential option for him. 

“It shows you what it’s really going to be like to be a teacher,” he said.

While there are a number of early college programs available to high school students in Maine, USM’s partnership with Westbrook is unusual. Focused solely on teaching, the Westbrook Future Teachers Academy places Westbrook juniors and seniors in college-level Education classes — the same courses they would take as traditional Education students at USM. They start with EDU 100 (Exploring Teaching as a Profession) and move on to Child Development and courses geared to their specific teaching interest, such as Special Education for K-12 or Art Education for Grades 6-12. Some courses are taught at USM while others are held at the high school or online. 

“The program strengthens the teacher pipeline to help address the state teacher shortage and provides early career exploration and college credits for high school students,” said Flynn Ross, Chair and Associate Professor of Teacher Education at USM. 

Last year, Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia, a literacy lecturer at USM, approached USM’s Education leaders about the partnership. His hope: An early college program for teaching might help Westbrook form its own, more diverse teaching staff.  

“About 20 percent of our kids are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and about one percent of our staff are BIPOC, for example,” Lancia said. “We’ve been looking at different strategies over the years and we have a workgroup that was looking at recruiting and retention and hiring strategies. We started talking about, ‘Well, could we basically develop our own teachers, our own students into teachers?’ We should be able to do that.”

Funded through the state’s Early College program, the Westbrook Future Teachers Academy started last fall with six students. The first course was held at the high school with Lancia as one of the instructors. 

“It was amazing. It was absolutely incredible,” he said. “The best part was getting to know what they were thinking about teaching and their perceptions about what teaching is.”

Dr. Peter Lancia, far left, stands with the first members of the new Westbrook Future Teachers Academy and Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin, far right.

In the course, students learned about classroom management, lesson planning, and other teaching essentials. In the field, they shadowed a teacher at the local elementary, middle, or high school to see how those teaching essentials worked in real life. 

The experience gave students good insight into teaching as a career. Some decided teaching wasn’t for them, or they realized the subject or age level wasn’t quite right. Others found a great fit. 

Leavitt spent his time in a Westbrook High School freshman science class, where he first observed and later helped with activities and labs. It gave him a real, firsthand look at the challenges and rewards of teaching. He loved it. 

“It was great because it was honest,” Leavitt said. 

Students can earn 12 college credits by passing all four courses over two years. The classes, and credits, are free and can be transferred anywhere that accepts USM credits. Westbrook will also guarantee participating students a college internship and a job interview once they graduate with their bachelor’s degree. 

Leavitt has been accepted to the University of Maine at Farmington and is planning to major in Education. He could see himself returning to his hometown to teach. 

“I like Westbrook a lot,” Leavitt said. 

He also liked the Future Teachers Academy — enough so that he recommended it to a friend. 

“He joined it halfway through,” Leavitt said. 

The Future Teachers Academy program will expand next school year when USM partners with Gorham and Camden schools as well as Westbrook.