Published June 04, 2020 by Rebecca Goldfine

Topsham School's Bree Candland ’01 Wins Maine Teaching Recognition

Social studies teacher Bree Candland ’01 has been recognized as Sagadahoc County Teacher of the Year by the Maine Department of Education. She is now in the running for Maine Teacher of the Year.
Bree Candland at home with her cat
Bree Candland at home with her cat, Nelson Mandela.

While she appreciates the recognition, the fact that it was a student who nominated her means even more to Candland.

She was the only teacher in the group of sixteen nominees to be suggested by a student rather than a colleague, principal, or community member. "I think it's special," she said, "because who knows you better as a teacher than a student?"

Madigan Saundersthe senior at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham who proposed Candland for the awarddescribed her teacher as "invested in students in and out of the classroom...Her sarcastic nature [and] warm and glowing personality always welcomes everyone into her room."

Saunders also acknowledged how impactful her freshman-year religion course with Candland was for her. "I’m a senior, and when I walk by her class I still remember everything from her world religions class," she wrote.

A Master's of Art in Theology and Institutional Change

When Mt. Ararat H.S. hired Candland as a full-time teacher in 2001, school officials asked her to teach a class about ancient world cultures to ninth graders. (She began at the middle school in the spring of 2001 as a student intern.)

That request ended up setting her off on a path that would inspire her not only to propose a revitalization of the high school's social studies curriculum, but also lead her to seminary school.

Teaching about ancient cultures, as well as helping students make sense of 9/11 and its aftermath, sparked in Candland a deeper interest in religion. In 2006, she enrolled in Bangor Theological Seminary, graduating five years later (after taking many evening classes) with a master's degree in theology. 

Her seminary studies gave her the impetus to propose a change at her high school. In 2010, Candland suggested to her department that they offer freshmen two courses on world religions and world governments instead of a class on ancient cultures. "All the best questions the kids ever asked me in the ancient world cultures class were about religion," Candland recalled.

Her idea took off, and today all 160 to 170 Mt. Ararat ninth graders study religions and government systems around the world. Older students now also take a semester of economics and a semester on foreign policy.

"We're trying to be relevant," Candland said. "Social studies teachers get asked all the time by students, 'Why do I need to know this?' Now we don't get asked those questions. It's obvious. These topics are everywhere."

An Epiphany at Bowdoin

Within a few minutes of talking to Candland about her career, her love for and commitment to her profession become very apparent. She credits discovering her calling at Bowdoin.

When she arrived at the College in 1997, she was not considering a teaching career. "I came to Bowdoin thinking I would be a therapist," she said.

But her pre-major advisor, retired professor Penny Martin, encouraged her to take her introductory education course. Very quickly, Candland knew what she wanted to dedicate her life's work to. Part of what convinced her to become a teacher was the camaraderie of her fellow classmates in Martin's class, and part of it was studying a topic she was familiar with after just completing eighteen years of school herself.

Over the years, her appreciation for her job, and for her students, has only become stronger. "I laugh all day long at school," she said. "Teenagers are funny and hilarious. They are goofy and insecure and they aren't sure of who they are yet, and you are able to have such an impact on helping them form who they are going to be. And that is amazing."

A Teacher's Approach

The title of teacher in the United States doesn't automatically elicit respect, Candland said, so it's up to teachers to earn it from their students. "You have to be yourself, and be authentic and honest with kids," Candland said. "They appreciate that."

To that end, Candland often shares details about her hobbies outside of class. "I want to model for them that I think it is important to have a full life, to adventure, to try new things, to see the world, and to have interests that matter to you." These days, for instance, she speaks about her recent training to become a hospice volunteer.

Her adventurous life has also at times involved students: she's taken groups of students—some of whom had never left New England before—on eight trips abroad to Costa Rica, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Scotland, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic

This benefit of her job—among others—makes Candland marvel at her fortune. "I was a kid [from Bangor, Maine] who got an incredible scholarship to go to Bowdoin," she said. "I am lucky that this became my life. And with hard work, students can have all these opportunities open to them, too."