Kristen Small, a teacher at Wexford
Montessori Magnet Elementary School in south Lansing, spent Thursday
packing another year away.
Everything had to be thrown out or go into boxes so the
room could be cleaned. There were stacks of student journals, plastic
wedges for teaching fractions, maps, papers, markers and hundreds of other things.
The room emptied down to brown shelves
and gray carpet. Small drew a map so everything could be put back
together as she wanted it. A bouquet of flowers from a student stayed on
her desk, keeping up her spirits.
“I’m getting a second job,” Small said. She is a 47-year-old single mother. “I want to be financially prepared for what’s about to happen.”
The school year is over, but with
contract negotiations under way amid talk of salary and benefit cuts,
Lansing teachers aren’t exactly unwinding. This spring, 150 of the
Lansing School District’s 965 teachers got layoff notices. The teachers’
union expects about 90 of those to be actually laid off.
“Right now the climate is so bad to be a teacher,” Small said. “It’s a profession, but it’s not terribly respected.”
She kneeled on the floor and began to put away a shelf of beads that help teach math.
Subtraction is on her mind. A bill that
would require all public workers to pay 20 percent of their health
insurance premiums is working its way through the state Legislature, and
Lansing teachers are bracing for wage cuts of 10 to 20 percent.
“When I sit down and do the math, I figure my wages would go back nine years,” she said.
Last month, Small and about 20 other area teachers talked
about what it’s like to teach in Lansing. The local teachers’ union, the
Lansing Schools Education Association, commissioned the interviews with
local P.R. man Robert Kolt to counter a growing public perception that
teachers are underworked and overpaid.
In the interviews, one theme plays over and over: People don’t know what it’s like.
“A lot of people come in my classroom, roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh my God, I wouldn’t last a day here,’” Small said.
The teachers talked about great
days and good days. Their students’ lives are complicated. So are
theirs. Pay and benefit cuts, lack of parent support, the rule of
standardized tests, a perceived disconnect with the administration and
eroding public respect is wearing many teachers down.
Despite the immersion in day-to-day details, Small keeps a “spiritual” image of the job in her mind.
“Everybody goes off to work, but we are handing over
everything that’s known through all the millennia to the next set of
adults,” Small said.
She is worried that a lot of people in
Michigan, from legislators to school administrators to the public, don’t
understand what teachers are going through.
“For the first time ever, I’ve told young friends and relatives and colleagues, Don’t go into it. Not in Michigan, not now.”WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT TEACHING?
I understand what many of our students are faced with every day. I grew up in a low income, extremely dysfunctional family. If I did not have a few good teachers who could see past my dirty clothes, or who continued to help build my self esteem and who taught me that I could change my path in life, I might not be in the position I am today. I am the only person in my family who gets a salary and benefits and I have never been on welfare. -Jessica Pless, 38, Gardner Middle School, in district 10 years
I like the look they get on their face when they are really into learning the content and forget about everything else that is going on in their lives, focused just on the moment. -Chuck Alberts, 37, Pattengill Middle School, in district 13 years
My students are real, authentic. I grew up simple in Lansing and the only language I knew was Spanish. My dad worked on the line at GM. I was part of the Headstart program and had trouble learning English. I am able to relate to their real life situation. -Alfonso Salais, 38, now at Everett High, in district 17 years
I love making those daily connections and seeing the ‘ah-ha’ moment. -Jennifer Shaw, 33, now at Cumberland Elementary, in district nine years
I am more than a teacher to my kids. I teach students how to hold a pencil, how to use a bathroom. I teach them skills to survive. Sometimes we give our students the only meals they get. -Irma Baker, 50, has been teaching refugee students at Dwight Rich Middle School for 10 years.
It blows me away when students come back to visit or I see them at the store or in public somewhere and the say they miss my class, share with me things they remember. You know it is real and they don’t have to say it. That is why I do what I do! -Chuck Alberts, 37, Pattengill Middle School, in district 13 years
A teacher told me a student of mine got a tattoo and she told the teacher I was her favorite teacher and she chose to put a Latin motto on her body as a tribute to her religious faith. -James Bell, 60, Eastern High, in district 11 years (teaches Latin)
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THE SCHOOL BOARD, STATE LEGISLATORS, OR GOV. RICK SNYDER, IF YOU COULD?
If you want to build Lansing as a world class city, you need world class schools. I wonder who will be going into education in the future? -Irma Baker, 50, has been teaching at Dwight Rich Middle School 10 years
I would ask the Governor who he thinks would take children to Michigan, knowing that their children will be in classroom with 30 to 35 students. I want him to know I know of families that are questioning if they will even stay in Michigan, because of the cuts to education. -Julie Adolphson, 39, Kendon Elementary, in district six years
If we try to balance the budget on the backs of the children, look out in 10-15 years. That will make this seem like the golden ages. -Matt Pierson, 41, now at Gardner Middle School, in district 12 years
When the school doesn’t have paper, pencils or glue I buy them. When kids don’t have lunch money I pay for them. Does he buy his own office supplies? When his printer is out of ink does he buy his own. I don’t think he realizes how much a teacher spends of their salary on their classrooms. -Chuck Alberts, 37, Pattengill Middle School, in district 13 years
Back off of all the regulations that are being thrust upon us. If they were us, they wouldn’t stand for how we are treated. Nobody says a word about bad administrators. -Deborah McMillan, 61, Bingham Elementary, in district 23 years
Leave us alone and let us teach! (It’ll never happen.) -Mary Evangelista, 55, in district 17 years
DO YOU THINK THE PUBLIC AND OTHERS BELIEVE TEACHERS WORK HARD?
My husband can’t believe the amount of work I bring home and asks why I can’t get it done at school, as it cuts into family time, but the reality is there is not enough time in 55 minutes of planning to plan for three different subject areas, plus grade 150-plus assignments that require reading, proofreading, comments etc. After my kids are in bed I work on grading papers because there is never enough time at school to grade them, log them in, enter them into Edline, and get them back to kids in a timely fashion. Down time comes when I crawl into bed at night. -Jessica Pless, 38, Gardner Middle School, in district 10 years
People that don’t have personal connections to teachers probably don’t realize the long hours we put in during a school week, the extra we do over the weekend or how we spend parts of our summers taking classes, planning or purchasing items for our room. -Chuck Alberts, 37, Pattengill Middle School, in district 13 years
I worry about all of the kids all of the time. Teaching is a very emotionally exhausting job for me. When I am grading papers at home or planning lessons, I get questioned by my son. ‘When are you going to be done so we can play?’ Sad and frustrating. -Jessica Ryan, 32, now a teacher coach at Gardner and Dwight Rich middle schools, in district six years
Those who have teachers in their lives know we teachers work hard, during and after class. Some people know they can’t do what I do. Kids buy into you. Not everyone can just teach my kids. The kids don’t always open up. -Alfonso Salais, 38, now at Everett High, in district 17 years
Teaching is mentally exhausting. I have a 10-12 hour day. My job in the city is tougher than others, because we lack parental support sometimes. I can’t give up on my kids. -Irma Baker, 50, at Dwight Rich Middle School 10 years
WORKING FOR A LIVING
I have trouble making ends meet. I raised my son while a single mother. To help, I tutor after school for a private service several days per week, but it doesn’t pay much. -Mary Evangelista, 55, in district 17 years
My wife is a nurse and works 12-hour shifts, so many nights I am the only parent at home until the kids are in bed. After they head up to bed I check papers, do research and work on lesson ideas. -Chuck Alberts, 37, Pattengill Middle School, in district 13 years
I have a part-time salesperson job at a store in the Lansing Mall and I teach Braille one night a week. My daughter has type one diabetes and requires costly special care like an insulin pump that costs $5,000. -Kathy Roelofs-Jones, 51, Sexton High School, in district 25 years
This is my life…it is nearly all I do, night and summers. -Benton Billings, 42, Everett High School, in district 15 years
A 10 percent cut could force personal bankruptcy on us. -Victor Celentino, 46, now at Dwight Rich Middle School, 17 years in district
I would apply for food assistance, would not be able to pay my student loans and I would have to sell my van. -Julie Adolphson, 39, Kendon Elementary, in district six years
Students are not being held accountable for their actions. If schools discipline students for inappropriate behavior, many parents do not support the school administration, which only hurts students in the long run. -Jessica Pless, 38, Gardner Middle School, in district 10 years
It would make the difference in making our mortgage payment. -Alfonso Salais, 38, now at Everett High, in district 17 years
[A 10 percent salary cut] would be devastating. Possible bankruptcy. It would force me to find a second job, which would take me away from my family. -Matt Pierson, 41, now at Gardner Middle School, in district 12 years
I am teaching all three grades (6-8) and five different subjects due to personnel cuts. Many of the students are experiencing hard times at home and it overflows in the schools. -Victor Celentino, 46, now at Dwight Rich Middle School, 17 years in district
This year, after 17.5 years of teaching, I was punched in the side of the head by a student. -Matt Pierson, 41, now at Gardner Middle School, in district 12 years
WHAT DO YOU LIKE OR DISLIKE ABOUT THE SCHOOL DISTRICT?
There doesn’t seem to be any long term planning. -Casey Beauchamp, 33, Gardner Middle School, in district 10 years
Teachable moments have all but been eliminated. Let me run and see what GLCE (Grade Level Content Expectations) it could meet and if it’s within the time period when I need to teach that idea! -Mary Evangelista, 55, in district 17 years
Sexton is a magnet school, but the district can’t find rooms, labs and funding to maintain the engineering program. We lobby for supplies. We don’t have the room space we need. -Randall Heck, 48, Sexton High School, in district 20 years
I love the diversity of the district. I don’t like it that we don’t put the best interests of the children first. -Julie Adolphson, 39, Kendon Elementary, in district six years
Why is it that so many high-up administrators don’t know anything abut what is going on in their district? There seems to be a huge disconnect between the front lines of the classroom and downtown, but all the problems seem to get blamed on the teachers. -Jessica Ryan, 32, now a teacher coach at Gardner and Dwight Rich middle schools, in district six years
The administration is always at odds with the teachers. We are the front lines and we have little voice in policy and financial matters. -Chuck Alberts, 37, Pattengill Middle School, in district 13 years
I don’t understand the disconnect between teachers, board, administrators. -Irma Baker, 50, at Dwight Rich Middle School 10 years
Most people outside of the classroom trying to make decisions for us that are in the classroom have little to no idea what goes on day to day inside the classrooms. -Matt Pierson, 41, now at Gardner Middle School, in district 12 years
I wish the administration and board would be more visible in the classrooms. They do not have a clue what is going on in the schools, so how can they decide what is best? -Diane Singletary, 60, Post Oak Elementary, in district 35 years
Too often, the administration is disconnected with the schools, teachers, etc. They make decisions and create unrealistic expectations for the schools, but don’t provide resources or follow up to address the issues relating to them. -Casey Beauchamp, 33, Gardner Middle School, in district 10 years
They constantly have new ideas and don’t fund programs. I don’t like all of the unnecessary paperwork we have to do. I want to teach. -Deborah McMillan, 61, Bingham Elementary, in district 23 years
A lot of times after school I am on the computer as department chair, filling out paperwork not related to class. Every process seems to change continually. The administration seems out of touch. If Dr. Wallace came into my class, nobody would know who he is. If Dr. [Sharon] Banks [former Lansing School District superintendent] walked in, 90 percent of the students would know her. She had her problems, but she made herself visible and available. -Bill Clark, 42, Gardner Middle School, in district 16 years
Response from Superintendent T.C. Wallace
First of all, let me be clear: there is no misunderstanding by the administration as to how hard our teachers and staff work everyday. We publicly celebrate the success of our teachers in the classroom with the continual increase in student achievement. This administration is incredibly proud of our dedicated teachers and the care and effort they put into every day they spend with our students.
The alleged "disconnect" between teachers and the administration is a misrepresentation of the problem. This feeling of disconnection is a direct result of the teacher union’s interaction as the middle man between these two groups. Union provisions continue to tie the administration’s hands and put up barriers under the guise of "protecting" teachers that only impede reforms that could provide teachers with more direct input on decisions that effect what happens everyday in their classrooms.
So if the teachers want to feel connected to the administration, let’s get down to the business of doing what is best for our students. We’re all in the same boat; it’s time to start rowing in the same direction.