Editor’s note: Kristin Rohrbach-Westra, who had taught at the Chebeague Island School, died Oct. 1. Police reported it was a suicide. The following remembrance was written by Ruth Kermish-Allen, executive director of the Maine Math and Science Alliance and a former education director at the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront.
By Ruth Kermish-Allen
Every now and again, something comes along to shift the way we look at the world. These new perspectives come to us from both the great experiences in our lives and some of the hardest.
When we heard the news that Kristin Rohrbach-Westra, a teacher at the Chebeague Island School, was missing from her home in North Yarmouth, a reality began to take shape in the minds of those who knew her that simply didn’t fit with how we saw the world. How could an amazing, strong, vibrant woman like Kristin simply disappear one morning?
Losing Kristin was and is an excruciating experience for her family and friends, her colleagues on Chebeague, and for all of us who worked with her through island and state-level STEM networks. We are left wondering what we could have done, and how something so dark could have impacted such an outstanding community leader.
One beautiful ray of light emerging from this hurt, sorrow, and loss is the opportunity for our education community to celebrate the lasting positive impact Kristin had on her school, community, fellow educators, and of course, on her students.
Kristin was a true inspiration to the teachers around her. Always willing to find a way to push the limits, she worked hard to give her students the best possible learning experiences. Her uncanny ability to make even the most daunting academic task fun, engaging, and exciting was a marvel to witness.
For her students, she provided the positive energy to keep them motivated and ready to learn. For her peers, she provided leadership through her actions—not just her words. Even though we all looked to her for strategies to make a lesson or method work, she never once took credit for it or saw herself as any different than all the other educators around her.
Kristin’s willingness to share her expertise and natural ability to generate place-based education opportunities and find ways to make learning truly relevant and meaningful for her students, while also meeting all of the identified academic targets, is what made her a leader, friend, and inspiration among her peers. Kristin’s absence in the education community, both on-island and across the state, will be felt for many, many years to come—but the example of the stellar educational leadership she shared with us will never be forgotten.
Losing Kristin also brings into clear focus how heavy a weight is placed on teachers today. Educators across the country, and especially in our rural communities, are dealing with failing social support structures, more requirements to be taught but no additional funding to make it happen, and ever tightening local school budgets. In short, our teachers are heroes and heroines fighting their hardest for our kids—our future!
We must all work together to find effective ways to support educators as they do their work, whether through better training opportunities, stronger advocacy for school budgets, or simply sending a box of cookies every now and again to say thank you for doing what you do.
Each of us can do more to support educators in our community so the burden they bear can be made a little lighter. Whenever I think of Kristin and the big smile and hug we shared every time we saw each other, I will be prompted to do something special for the educators I know and to fight a little harder to support the type of educational experience Kristin was able to give her students.
Kristin Westra-Rohrbach had been an advisor for many Island Institute programs and taught at the Chebeague Island School for eight years. She was an active and founding teacher in Weatherblur, a program begun by the Island Institute and now run by the Maine Math and Science Alliance along with other island and mainland educators across the state. With her fellow Chebeague educators, Westra-Rohrbach was a faithful participant in the Island Institute’s professional development offerings, including the annual Island Teachers Conference.