Growing Up: Battling both sides of the brain

While growing up extremely creative, with a passion for fine arts, Katie Bernier turned her strongest and favorite subject in school, math, into her career.

“I chuckle thinking about how I ended up following the career path I did,” Bernier said.

Bernier, 35, did well academically and math came easily to her. While many of her peers hated the subject, it made sense to her, and her teachers were a source of positive encouragement. She enjoyed competing with the boys in her class for awards and top grades.

“I totally get that math is a foreign language to some people, but for me it was very concrete,” Bernier said. “It’s about rules and steps, that’s it. Learn the rules and how to apply them, follow the steps, get the answer. It wasn’t subjective at all.”

While she enjoyed math, her love of art also weighed heavy on her future.

“Every elective I could possibly take was always an art elective. I drew constantly and became the go-to artist for my family, friends, classmates and teachers,” Bernier said. “I honestly wanted to pursue a career that involved art, but at the time I didn’t think it was a rational decision.”

After her first job as a camp counselor, she discovered her love of working with children. It made her happy, and like math, she had a knack for it. She decided to attend college at the University of Maine at Farmington and be certified to teach kindergarten through eighth grade. She wanted to teach math.

At Farmington, the majority of her peers wanted to teach language arts, with only a handful of the students studying to teach math and science. It wasn’t about being a woman pursuing a STEM career; what was significant was that only a few of people, male or female, were in her math classes.

She got her master’s in teaching at the University of New England and taught middle school math for six years in School Administrative District 55, in the Sacopee Valley area.

She worked hard, was involved in the community as a coach and cared deeply about her students. She made sure lessons and problems would connect with the kids, often calling out a student’s hobby or passion and making it the subject of a math problem.

“What made me feel most accomplished was that class after class, year after year, I would have students tell me they hated math until my class and that I made it their favorite subject,” Bernier said.

Bernier said both students and ed techs alike would have moments of mathematical clarity: she had explained math in a way that made sense.

“I’m smiling to myself right now thinking about that,” Bernier said. “I really did work hard to teach every concept in as many ways as possible because, as we all know, people learn differently.”

A former student, now a senior at USM, reached out to her on Facebook recently and explained she inspired him to become a teacher. “You made the material fun and interesting,” the student wrote. He hopes to take what he learned from Bernier with him as he begins his teaching career.

It wasn’t always easy and Bernier struggled with difficult students, the administration, parents and the emphasis on standardized testing. She was exhausted and burnt out after six years. It’s hard work and is a selfless and often thankless career.

And, she said, all of the math projects she assigned her students were becoming art projects, as well. By having students create scaled drawings of themselves, using fractions, measurements and percentages or graphing projects that had to create an image, her true passion was showing itself through her math assignments.

“The mathematical side of my brain was losing the battle to my creative side,” Bernier said. “When you are a creative being, you simply can’t stifle that creativity.”

So she went back to school and attended Full Sail University in Florida, where she majored in digital arts and design. Today she works as a graphic designer and illustrator for a branding company in Portland.

“I realized I had to pursue my passion and put my artistic abilities to use, but I miss working with kids a lot,” Bernier said. “I will always be thankful for the experience I had, the connections I made, and the idea that maybe, just maybe I made math, school and learning a positive experience.”

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