Meet TREE Director Brittany Ray
Brittany was born and raised in Washington County. She graduated from Narraguagus High School in 1989 and attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where she majored in English and minored in Education. In 1993 Brittany graduated valedictorian and class marshal of Colby College. After Colby, Brittany was excited to pursue her passion for education, and she returned to Washington County where she began teaching English at Machias Memorial High School. In 1995 Brittany had the opportunity to return to her former high school to teach English, where she remained as a teacher and English Department Chair for 11 years.
In 2007 Brittany was named Maine Teacher of the Year, becoming the first teacher to represent Washington County in over 25 years. This same year Brittany transitioned from the classroom to administration when she was hired as the Narraguagus High School Guidance Director/School Counselor. In 2009, Brittany Ray received her Master of Science in School Counseling from Husson University in Bangor, Maine.
Her experiences in the classroom and in school counseling fueled her passion for building relationships and developing strategies to help mitigate poverty related barriers for her students. In her time as school counselor, Brittany wrote, obtained, and administered various grants linked to assisting students living in poverty. Her goal of fostering schools and communities which are both poverty and trauma sensitive continues today. In 2015, Brittany was honored along with her colleague Suzen Polk-Hoffses, when they were asked to present their work “Breaking the Barriers of Poverty” at Maine’s first ever ECET-2 Maine Teacher Leadership Summit. Brittany Ray resides in Milbridge, Maine with her husband, Ron Smith, and their four children - Bayley, Thomas, Jo-Jo, and Ting-Ting.
An interview with Brittany Ray, CCLC’s New Director Of Transforming Rural Experience In Education (TREE)
You’ve spent your career as a high school English teacher and guidance counselor. What enticed you to leave working directly with students to take a position directing TREE?
In January of 2016, I attended the monthly Down East Counselors Association meeting. At this particular meeting Alan Furth had been invited to speak about a new grant funded project known as Transforming Rural Experience in Education, or TREE. As I listened to the goals of poverty and trauma informed school transformation, I felt my face getting red and my heart pounding faster. This was exactly the type of work that absorbed my life at Narraguagus Jr/Sr. High School.
For years I have been working to provide greater support to students living in poverty. I wanted to know so much more. Thankfully, Alan invited me to join the TREE Advisory Team. When I learned that TREE was looking for a director, though it was hard for me to imagine a new career beyond the classroom and guidance office, I saw that this could be a chance for me to make a difference in what often leaves me so discouraged and overwhelmed at day’s end. I am confident that as the Director of TREE and a member of an outstanding team, we have what it takes to work collaboratively and sensitively with teachers, administrators,school boards, social workers, mental health providers, students, parents, and community members to make those changes within our schools.
Physically I will no longer be with my students daily, but emotionally I am with all the students of Washington County. I will continuously think of their stories and circumstances as we move forward.
What are your first priorities as you settle in to your new position? And what are you looking forward to working on over the next six months to a year?
My first priority is to listen, listen, and listen some more to both the shared and unique needs of schools in Washington County. These first steps are crucial to defining and developing TREE. In phases, I look to develop relationships with all schools in Washington County so that all teachers are able to participate in conversations that will ultimately lead us to enhance learning for all students, especially those who come to us with adverse experiences.
What are some of the unique challenges of working in a rural area, and in this particular region?
There is a shortage of mental health counselors in rural Washington County. Waiting lists are often extremely long for students seeking mental health counseling. There is a discrepancy between the services that are provided by social workers and school counselors outside of and within Washington County schools. Many of our K-8 schools have no social worker and have access to a school counselor only one day per week.
Would you describe some of the collaborations that are already underway, and how they might be shaping the direction TREE is going?
TREE will work directly with other community efforts including the Community Caring Collaborative, which was established to ensure the greatest systems of care and support are available for families with children from pregnancy - 8 years of age. The Community Caring Collaborative will assist in providing social and mental health partners essential for TREE’s success in schools. TREE is actively participating with The University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development, Colby College, University of Maine at Machias, Viterbo University, and Washington County Community College. Our TREE Advisory team includes Passamaquoddy leadership so that we may bring critical support to their schools. Local schools are well represented on the Advisory Team, and Turnaround for Children offers access to its materials and data, as well as consultation, guidance, support, and training.
What outcomes from this program would you like to see in 5 years?
Our mission with TREE is to strengthen rural schools and communities. Our schools have amazing students and truly dedicated teachers and staff who care about the whole child, yet we know we must do better. Far too many of our youth here in Washington County have been dealt cards that will lead to hopelessness if supports are not offered and resources are not bolstered. In 5 years, I would like to see the trajectory moving toward hopefulness. I would like students to have access to mental health care, and I would like teachers to know what strategies can be used to lessen the stress that so many of our children hold inside, affecting their school day and their learning readiness. Undoubtedly, we should begin to see improvements in those essential non-cognitive or “soft skills” such as self regulation, self direction, social awareness, stress management, curiosity, perseverance, and optimism among students. By working together to fortify the school environment, we expect TREE to result in improved teaching and learning for our most vulnerable students, healthier schools, and in turn, healthier communities.