Guest blog: Education commissioner’s keynote highlight of annual teachers conference

Staff Writer
Posted 2019-11-18

By Courtney Naliboff, North Haven

When I attend the Island Teachers’ Conference, I most look forward to the opportunity to connect with educators and administrators from up and down the coast. This year, with ample time between sessions and during meals to chat, I enjoyed conversing with teachers from Vinalhaven, Isle au Haut, Islesboro, and even some participating mainland schools.

However, the highlight of the conference for me was the keynote address by Pender Makin, commissioner of the Maine Department of Education. It is challenging to be an educator, now more than ever. To hear her identify some of the roadblocks in our profession—in particular, the standardized testing lobby—and speak clearly and passionately about ways in which she is advocating for a more common sense approach to public education was inspiring and energizing.

She also generously took some extra time to speak with a few of us after her presentation. I am the certification chair for my school and have heard the frustrations of many of my colleagues, particularly second-career educators, as they try to navigate a Kafka-esque certification process. While there have been improvements since Makin’s tenure began, there are still a number of challenges confronting those seeking certification in this rewarding but already difficult profession. I felt heard and validated, and she offered some suggestions to share with the teachers under my purview which will hopefully smooth the way.

Although I had reached out to the Department of Education before, having a respected organization like the Island Institute make the connection between educators and their chief administrator gave our concerns validity and will hopefully lead to solutions.

Commissioner Makin speaks with Courtney Naliboff and other teachers following her keynote.

Highlights of Maine DOE Commissioner Pender Makin’s keynote address
2019 Island Teachers Conference
Friday, October 11, 2019

Teachers as leaders
  • Practice your elevator pitch—think/talk about why it is you do what you do and how it connects to a far greater good.
  • Signature initiative is no initiatives—there were lots of bills in the legislature this past session, many unnecessary; everyone has mandate fatigue.
  • Under her guidance, DOE is reaching out to the field to get information from the real experts about what we need to do for Maine’s kids; by not mandating anything new, teachers will be able to look at what they’re doing, figure out what’s working and what isn’t, and determine the support they need.
  • We’re asking teachers to be as innovative, creative, and dedicated as ever before; own back their leadership—tell DOE what’s working and what we should be doing.
The value of our schools
  • It is a myth that our schools are failing—stand up for them.
  • Public education is the third largest market demograohic in the US (#1 is medical, #2 is military); education is big business.
  • National polls show that the public thinks education as a whole is failing, but they also think that the school they know (their neighborhood school) is a good school.
  • The US public schools are actually doing very well; what differentiates us—we include every child (students with disabilities, students living in poverty, everyone). The places with the highest test scores do not include everyone, and they are not doing what we’re doing.
  • We create entrepreneurs and critical thinkers—that’s what we do that’s special.
  • Wirh our small rural schools, the focus has been on closing and consolidating them – this ruins towns.
  • The school is the economic driver, not the drain of our small communities. We must invest in our small communities. Keep them place-based, and keep our small schools.
  • When justifying your small school, have your elevator speech ready—make people have tears and goose bumps —we need to listen to our local teachers.
Self-care for teachers
  • Take care of yourselves—we need every caring compassionate teacher and school leader.
  • Happiness is contagious, but negativity is more so.
  • Optimism takes the impossible and makes it possible; educators are trying something impossible every day.


Courtney Naliboff teaches music and theater on North Haven.