Mt. Ararat Middle School Principal Megan Hayes Teague (left) and Assistant Principal Kaili Phillips. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)

The new principal and assistant principal at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham have set goals to engage families and increase enrichment opportunities for students, all while they adjust to their new roles and guide the school through the pandemic.

The school serves about 600 children in grades six through eight who live in Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Harpswell and Topsham. Of the 600, 85 live in Harpswell.

Neither Principal Megan Hayes Teague nor Assistant Principal Kaili Phillips set out to work in school administration.

Hayes Teague grew up in Kittery. As a sophomore at Bowdoin College, she took an education class and “fell in love with the idea of teaching and working toward a common good,” she said. She majored in archaeology and classics, with a minor in education.

After graduation, she taught middle school Latin for six years and high school math for another six. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of New Hampshire.

“When I became a teacher, I had no intention of being an administrator,” she said. But a supervisor encouraged her to take leadership classes. She soon realized that an administrative role could enable her to help more students.

“Instead of just effecting positive change for the students in front of me, maybe I could effect positive change for an entire building of students,” she said.

She was a K-12 assistant principal in the Monmouth schools for two years before becoming assistant principal of Mt. Ararat Middle School in 2015.

“I was really happy being an assistant principal,” she said. She appreciated the opportunity to build relationships with “some of the most challenging students” and the students most in need of an advocate.

“To help a kid who hates school start to see some positive benefits of being here was really important to me,” she said.

In late 2020, the Maine Principals’ Association named Hayes Teague the 2021 Assistant Principal of the Year, calling her “a true educational leader” who “leverages positive relationships with students and staff to bring innovative changes to her school community.”

In October of 2020, the principal of Mt. Ararat Middle School abruptly resigned to become a stay-at-home dad. The superintendent appointed Hayes Teague interim principal.

“It’s a really interesting job to do in a pandemic,” she said. “They don’t train you for that.”

Undaunted, she sought to become principal on a permanent basis.

She sees similarities between the Maine School Administrative District 75 community and her hometown of Kittery, where many residents work at a shipyard or on lobster boats.

“I loved growing up in that environment,” she said, “and I felt like I found a home here.”

In January, she bought a house near Williams-Cone Elementary School in Topsham, where her oldest child goes to school and her younger child will start next year.

“I really believe in this district,” she said. “I believe in the educational vision and the work we do for kids here — enough that I wanted to bring my own family here.”

Phillips, the assistant principal, grew up in a town of 600 in western Canada, where her mother was principal of the K-12 school. When she left to attend the University of Maine at Orono on a volleyball scholarship, a career in education was “definitely not” in her plans. With time and distance, those feelings began to change.

Growing up in a small town, teachers were “a big part of our lives,” Phillips said. “They were additional parents. They were mentors. They were role models.”

“I realized I wanted to do that for kids,” she said.

She majored in secondary education with a concentration in English, then taught at Biddeford High School and Thornton Academy Middle School before coming to Mt. Ararat Middle School in 2013.

Phillips taught at Mt. Ararat before becoming an instructional coach for other teachers. She “fell in love with the leadership part of it” and, after Hayes Teague’s promotion, became interim assistant principal.

Hayes Teague and Phillips started their positions on a permanent basis July 1 and immediately started planning for the year ahead, with a focus on emotional and social support for students.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to present challenges — and not just the challenges of masks and contact tracing.

The sudden shift from in-person to remote instruction in March 2020, followed by six months of hybrid instruction to start the following school year, affected students’ readiness for school. When full-time, in-person instruction resumed in March of this year, “the stamina for learning wasn’t there,” Hayes Teague said.

“We want to have a rigorous academic program,” Hayes Teague said, “but we also have to have students who are ready to learn.”

Another “extremely large day-to-day challenge” has come in the form of a substitute shortage, Hayes Teague said. Every day, she arrives early to review the list of absent staff and “piecemeal” coverage. She worries about what flu season will bring. “You can’t just come to work sick” anymore, she said.

Hayes Teague has two primary goals for the school’s future. First, she wants to increase engagement with families.

“There’s a natural drop in participation when kids move from fifth to sixth grade,” she said. At the elementary schools, parents know each other and “know how to be involved.”

At Harpswell Community School, their student might go from a class of 25-30 kids who know each other to a class of 195-220 strangers from four towns.

As assistant principal, Hayes Teague sought to engage families with a program called Parent Academy. The program brought in experts to talk about topics relevant to adolescent parenting, like cellphone use and vaping. The pandemic derailed the program, but Hayes Teague plans to resurrect it.

The school has a brand-new food pantry — another effort to reach families and the larger community.

Over the summer, Hayes Teague contacted the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program and recruited parent volunteers. The W.I.N.G. pantry — the name stands for “We Include, Nurture and Give” — is now open every Monday and Friday.

Another of the principal’s goals is to offer more enrichment opportunities to students who need a challenge. For example, the school does not offer foreign-language instruction until eighth grade. “To be comparable with what other schools in our area are doing, we should start that instruction in seventh grade,” she said.

Both Hayes Teague and Phillips are embracing the opportunity to lead the school toward these goals.

Phillips feels “grateful for being trusted to fulfill an important position for so many people — kids and staff and families,” she said.

Last year thrust the pair into new roles, an experience Hayes Teague likened to “taking the reins of a carriage already in motion.” This year, they were able to plan ahead and think about their vision for the school.

“It’s been a really exciting time,” Hayes Teague said.