Sandie Sawyer Reflects on 47 Years of Teaching

Sandie Sawyer Reflects on 47 Years of Teaching
By Lura Jackson
If you’ve been a student at Calais High School over the past seven decades or so, chances are you’ve met Sandie Sawyer. Sawyer has been a presence in the school – first as a student, then as a secretary, then as a teacher – for most of her life, but now that time is coming to an end. This spring marks Sawyer’s last semester in the school system, but before she goes, she agreed to share her experiences and reflections on spending 47 years as a teacher.
Born and raised in Charlotte to parents that grew up on the same road together, Sawyer embodies the concept of what it means to be a “local” in Downeast Maine. In referring to Charlotte, Pembroke, Cooper, Calais, and all the places in between, she tends to think of the towns as a single blended community – importantly, one that she sees as a “good community.”
A maroon 2007 Honda SUV was reported to be headed into the St. Croix River early Friday morning by a Canadian bystander. Police and rescue personnel quickly responded but no driver could be located. The vehicle was confirmed to be stolen from the Calais fire department parking lot. No suspects have been identified at this time. (Calais Police photo).
When it was time for Sawyer to attend high school, she came to Calais Memorial High, then located on Washington Street. She remembers taking a commercial class in preparation of being a secretary; as soon as she graduated she put the class to use as the secretary to the principal and guidance counselor for two years. Uncertain of what path she would follow, she enrolled in a one-year business program at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. After finishing that year, she knew she wanted to be a teacher, and she decided to pursue a degree in Business Education. 
In her senior year at Bob Jones, Sawyer came home for Christmas vacation. She was contacted by Mr. Giberson, who was the superintendent at the time. He wanted to interview her for the position of becoming the teacher for the business program. Sawyer was surprised, but she came in, did the interview, and soon headed back to school. In February, she received a letter with a contract in it. “I only had the one interview – that was all – and that was the beginning of a great adventure,” Sawyer recalls.  
The beginning wasn’t entirely smooth. When she first arrived, Sawyer found out quickly that she had two workshop days to prepare for seven classes. “It was quite interesting when we started,” Sawyer said. “We had no electric typewriters, and we had to have erasers and eraser shields for carbon copies.” She remembers learning alongside the students as the classes progressed, a trend that continues to this day. “Sometimes they can answer a question or two, and you learn to share back and forth that way.” 
The curriculum for the business program hasn’t changed in some ways. Students still learn accounting – and Sawyer is quick to point out that “we do it the manual way” so students can find errors on their own – and how to type properly and align business letters and memorandums. Students are taught business math, which Sawyer emphasizes is the practical side of mathematics. Indeed, Sawyer makes the case that nearly every element of the business program has practical application to the life of a student, which for her made it that much more enjoyable to teach. “If they’re not going to pursue a career, they can see the value of it in their everyday lives,” she said. 
There are, of course, many things that have changed, some as a direct result of evolving technology. Initially, there were very few electric typewriters in the class, then they were the standard. At one point around the mid-1980s, Sawyer and Eileen Clark were the ones to run the cables for the school’s first IBM computer system. “The evolution of all the electronics that have come down through that amount of time, it’s affected students and teachers alike,” Sawyer said in reflection.
Technological improvements have made it easier to grade papers. “For a while we had these great big IBM cards that we had to mark with a pencil,” Sandra recalls. “Then we had grade books for a while in the teachers’ room on the table,” she said, adding that teachers had to wait to put their grades in. “Now we can do it on our own computers.”
For everything that became easier, it seemed like other things became more complicated, however. “As things got easier in grading and things like that, we had more mandates coming down to take up our time elsewhere,” Sawyer said. “It seems there was always something to do.” She explained that the education system has been increasingly changing, particularly over the past 15-20 years. “Sometimes I felt like they were trying to make it more canned so anybody could do it,” she said. She listed No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and Competency-Based strategies as among the many changes that have been implemented in recent years. “Other times I think it’s just a case of maybe they don’t think we have enough to do and they’re trying to fill in our time,” she said with a chuckle. 
Despite Sawyer’s levity, her frustration with the constantly changing teaching requirements is among the things she won’t miss. “Now, it’s almost like we can’t even get the newest thing into effect before they’re changing it again. We’re constantly working to do something that we never actually see the fruits of in its entirety.”
Changing technology has affected some elements of the curriculum. No longer bound to electric typewriters, the modern business student works at a desk with a computer. He or she is taught word processing, proper keying, Excel spreadsheets and formulas, charting, desktop publishing, and PowerPoint. As part of the desktop publishing course, students develop the flyers for all of the events that take place at the school, including graduation, sporting events, and the winter carnival. At the end of the year they receive a certificate that signifies their completion of the course along with a personal ranking of their ability in all of its core competencies. 
Of each of the different elements that comprise the business program, Sawyer enjoys accounting the most. “I have had a lot of students in the past make a career choice based on accounting,” she said. “I love accounting myself and I suppose my enthusiasm makes them more excited about it, too, because the more enthusiastic you are about something the more you can sell them on it.” Every now and then she’ll have a former student come in to share with her that they’ve passed the accounting exam and are now Certified Public Accountants, including her next door neighbor.
Hearing back from students is one of the best rewards of being a teacher, Sawyer shares. One of her fondest memories comes from when she was at a parade during the International Festival. A former student came up to her – he had been away in the service. “He said, ‘I want to thank you so much. You taught me a skill in typing and when they saw how well I could type when I got in the service, I got to be an aide to one of the generals.’ He didn’t get put on the front lines. He said it really made his career,” Sawyer beamed.
Any conversation about technology and students would be incomplete without discussing how it has affected students directly. When computers and the internet were first coming around, Sawyer said that they were into the “really bad stuff” like pornography, but now they’re mainly interested in playing games and chatting with friends. “In some ways they’re not doing things as bad, but they’re not paying as close attention to their education,” said Sawyer. Cellphones captivate students to the point that they would spend literally all of them time using them. As such, Sawyer said that she is in favor of the school board’s recently proposed zero-tolerance policy for cellphones, which will hopefully return students’ attention to classes. “[Right now], they don’t care if they learn or not.”
Cellphones can mask other problems, Sawyer explains. While in general, to her perception, fighting has significantly decreased at the school over the years – as has drug use – she said that cellphones can hide the problem. “You don’t know what kind of fighting and bullying is going on – it’s just going on digitally as opposed to being out there and visible. It’s a whole different sort of worry and a whole different way you have to watch them.”
For the most part, Sawyer is pleased with the way students are friendly to staff and friendly to each other. She said that there is more integration in the student body with handicapped students and mixed race or non-white students. Two glaring differences between today’s students and those of yesteryear are the lack of proofreading and the lack of common sense. 
“Even with some kids having less common sense, we have some students that are taking advantage of the digital lifestyle and they are pushing themselves to points that I would never have had the opportunity to do while I was in school,” said Sawyer. “I think that a lot of it has to do with the home life and how much part the parents play in their lives.”
Now that Sawyer will be relinquishing the key she’s had to Calais High School for nearly half a century, she doesn’t intend to be any less busy. She’ll be retiring to her hometown of Charlotte, where she is a member of the Fire Department, serving as secretary and occasionally on emergency calls. She’ll also be investing more time into her church, where she teaches daily Bible class to young children and Sunday school on the weekends. She’ll also be working with the local historical society to ensure that the town’s original records are all duplicated, and of course, she’ll have more time with her family. 
Recalling when her mother was retiring from being town treasurer and her fears that she wouldn’t be in the middle of the action anymore, Sawyer remembers dismissing her feelings at the time. “Now I can understand why she might’ve felt that way. It’s going to be a lot different from knowing what kids are thinking and talking about and how they’re behaving to not knowing… I have a grandson so for a while I’ll have a contact there.”
“Here at Calais, it’s been like a gift,” said Sawyer. “It’s just like another family... That’s what I’ll miss the most – the students and the co-workers.”
One activity that Sawyer is looking forward to is attending all of the athletic games at CHS, something that will be made easier by her recent receipt of a lifetime pass. Typically, Sawyer would have been the one designed and delivering the lifetime passes, but this time, someone else did it. “See?” She pointed out. “Somebody else is ready to step into that slot. That’s the way it should be. That’s what life is all about.”