The WES application that went to the Preakness: fifth grade teacher Justin Stygles

Posted:  Monday, October 30, 2017 - 1:00pm

Justin Styles was teaching fifth grade in School Administrative District 17, living in Norway and looking to live and work closer to Portland and Boston. Any time he saw an opening, he applied right away.

But not for the fifth grade position the National Board-certified teacher has taken at Wiscasset Elementary School. He loves teaching fifth graders because, he said, even though they sometimes think they’re young adults, “They’re still very interested (and) there’s still an innocence to them that allows them to smile and to giggle.” But Wiscasset was on the eastern cusp of where he hoped to move.

So he hesitated on mailing in the application. Then he and daughter Rhiana, 15, who goes to Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, traveled this spring in his 2016 Toyota Corolla to Baltimore, Maryland for the Preakness, the second jewel in thoroughbred racing’s triple crown.

Stygles has a passion for horse racing and years ago had a brief career in harness racing. After a horse kicked him in the same part of the head he’d hurt when he flew forward out of the bike while jogging a horse, he went with his fallback career, which he said was also a passion: Teaching. He’s been doing it 15 years, and still maintains his interest in horse racing, as well, visiting Saratoga Raceway in New York and other tracks, including Pimlico for the Preakness.

“We drove all the way to Baltimore, and then I looked in the back, and there was my application packet to Wiscasset.” He mailed it when he returned home to Maine.

“I probably should have sent it using the special stamp they have at Pimlico for the Preakness and just sent it off from there,” he said, laughing after school in his upstairs classroom at WES. Describing the application as his most reluctant one, Stygles, 40, said, “It’s things like that that always work out in the end.”

It’s working out. His class is a very intelligent group and eager to learn, “which is a true blessing,” Stygles said. And he said parents are supportive of his efforts to have their children reading outside school. Stygles wants children to read in a strategic way that helps them see themselves in the book or gets them revisiting a book years later and seeing additional meaning in it they didn’t catch at an earlier age; and reading so much they can compete in the global economy with people elsewhere who are reading in great volume.

“I want to be part of a town that is willing to put that kind of emphasis on reading, so our kids can grow up to have a very successful future and proudly go out into the world and say, ‘We’re from Wiscasset’ and know that their teachers and their school gave them the ... instruction and the time to develop into those readers and writers who can work in those Amazon and Google environments. And we’re getting there.”

Hanging in the front of the classroom are instructions for students to look for a character’s aha moment; and ask questions and take other steps as they read to help them understand and remember what they’ve read. His insights into self-perception’s impact on the reading process caught the attention of a publishing company and, after four years of work, his book, tentatively titled, “I hate reading,” is close to finished. Corwin Literacy plans a July 2018 release, he said.

As for his move to Wiscasset in August, he is liking it here. It reminds him of Biloxi, Mississippi, one of about seven places he lived growing up. His father Matthew Stygles was in the Air Force and was once stationed at Keesler Air Force Base there.

“And the foggy nights here are just truly, truly wonderful. And it’s a nice, comfortable little town.”

Stygles has a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in teaching and learning, both from the University of Southern Maine, and a second master’s from the University of Maine in Orono as a reading specialist. He worked his way through college with jobs at Friendly’s restaurants in South Portland and Windham and at Joyful Noise Christian Daycare and Learning Center in Windham.

He’s pleased to be working with teachers and Superintendent of Schools Heather Wilmot and other administrators he said are committed to students. “I love Dr. Wilmot’s mission ... and I think we all have the same purpose, which is to put the kids first above anything else, and that’s hard to find.

“A lot of districts will say that, but it’s really the test scores first. We are focusing on the kids.”