UNH Program Aims To Recruit And Retain More Math, Science Teachers In The North Country
White Mountains Regional High School in Whitefield is surrounded by woods, and snow capped Mount Washington looms not far away.
A little ways from the school is a small field, filled with the bare bones of hand made shelters.
Aidan Wiggin’s a science teacher, and she gives me a tour of what her 9th and 10th grade students are building.
“They’re doing a lean-to style. There’s a teepee over there. These guys are digging a hole three feet down. They’re working on the roof,” she said, pointing to a group of boys shoveling dirt and sawing wood.
Her students are working on a survival project: they have to figure out how to build a shelter, how to cook food and how to build a water filtration system.
The school’s location, so close to the White Mountains, lets teachers use those natural resources as part of their classroom.
But in the last decade, WMRHS has consistently lost one to two science teachers each year. Typically, there are seven teachers in that department.
Mike Berry's the principal at White Mountains. He said his school’s location is both a blessing and a curse.
“It's really great we get to live up in Northern New Hampshire, but then at the same time, when we have openings, sometimes the pools are not as deep as other areas of the state,” Berry said.
In fact, according to the state’s Department of Education, there’s a critical shortage of teachers across New Hampshire in subjects like life science, physics, chemistry, and math.
And that’s something the University of New Hampshire is trying to change: the college of education wants people to stay in North Country teaching positions for more than just a few years.
So, it created a teaching residency. People with a degree in math or science can apply. If they’re accepted, students get a $28,000 stipend, and 50 percent off tuition to UNH, in exchange for teaching in a rural elementary or secondary school for three years.
It’s called the Teacher Residency for Rural Education, and it’s in its third year working in nine schools in Coos and Grafton Counties.
Tom Schram is the faculty in residence for the TRRE program. He said, he knows a lot of young people might not think of Coos County when they’re starting out in their careers.
“When you have the typical 20-something or whatever person coming up here. [They] have to be a special kind of person to find everything they want to find at that period in their life the social life and everything like this,” he said.
In other words, it's the kind of place where people have to know how to make their own fun.
Aidan Wiggin, the teacher we heard from earlier, is one of the teaching residents.
Wiggin said she wants to live here. She’s done the big city gig. But she grew up in New Hampshire, and she missed it.
“I like the small town rural living, I like the smaller population,”she said. “I love having the outdoor activity available and having the mountains right here.”
As part of the program, Wiggin’s been matched up with a teaching mentor, and she’s also taking UNH classes. The summer before residents start teaching, they intern at a partner organization so they know the community they’re working with before they start teaching.
The college has set up classes for TRRE residents in Gorham, so they don’t to make the two-hour drive to Durham.
The program is rigorous, she said.
“You’re working your 40-hour week and you have classes on top of that. My days typically go from 5:30 to 11 but you make it work and you know it’ll pay off in the end.”
By next fall, she’ll have a masters degree in education, and she’ll be licensed to teach in the state.
That fact gets Principal Berry thinking about the future and what will happen after Wiggin’s done student teaching.
Because, he says, getting teachers to stay for the long haul is a challenge. Even with this new program, he gets just a few years with a teacher.
That comes at a cost to students, Berry says.
“The more stability you can have in your building, the more learning that's going to take place in your building,” he said.
So next time Berry has an opening, he wants Wiggin to fill it.
“It's that simple,” he said, “If we're going to invest time and energy into her development, selfishly we we want her to work at our school.”
But, if she ends up at another school in Coos County, he said that’s also a good thing.
“That’s the intent of the program, to build capacity of solid educators in the North Country, ” Berry said.
UNH plans on expanding the residency program to the Lakes Region in the spring.
By the time their grant wraps up, they’ll have graduated 50 elementary and secondary math and science teachers to live and work in New Hampshire.
Note: This story has been corrected. UNH is offering classes to TRRE residents in Gorham, not Conway.