It’s not an easy time to be teacher right now. Since February, the country has been swept by a wave of walkouts. From West Virginia and Arizona to Oklahoma and Kentucky, many educators are leaving their classrooms in protest of low wages, difficult working conditions, and an apathetic federal government. The strikes have hit the hardest in states where collective bargaining rights have historically been the weakest. While there haven’t been any reported walkouts in Michigan this year — teachers’ unions have always wielded power here — the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling on Janus vs. AFSCME, labeled by some as one of the most consequential rulings of the year, obstructs public sector unions from extracting agency fees from public employees who they negotiate on behalf of but are not union members. It’s a decision that points to the waning of union authority across the country, and exemplifies U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’, political agenda. On the other hand, teachers in Michigan, when adjusted for cost of living, are the highest paid in the country according to the nonprofit, EdBuild. In hopes of better understanding how all these factors are playing out locally, Hour Detroit checked in with teachers and administrators across metro Detroit to see how educators felt about the national unrest, Betsy DeVos’ agenda, and their own work within the classroom. While emotions are certainly running high, one thing every teacher seems to have realized is that the power to effect change ultimately lies with them.
“We need funds to make sure that education is equitable across school districts,” says Dr. Sabrina Evans, the principal of Carver STEM Academy in Detroit. Having served as principal for the past nine years, Evans, who holds a doctorate in education administration, draws from a wealth of practical experience. “And Detroit Public Schools need more funds.” She sees federal funding as the best way to mitigate the differences between schools even if it comes at the cost of having the curriculum mandated in certain ways. Though she bemoans the current federal administration’s indifference to the needs of schools in urban areas like Detroit, she doesn’t see it as an issue specific to the current moment. “Honestly, we’ve been dealing with this issue in urban schools well before I graduated but my role as an administrator and as a teacher is to put students first otherwise, we are going to defeat the whole purpose of educating children.”
—Jayna Rumble, English teacher
Jayna Rumble, a teacher at Troy High School, admits to feeling a little less settled at times. “I have to be honest that it is sort of a tough time to be a teacher in the last couple of years … it can be easy to fall into a negative headspace about things.” She’s pointing to the perception that the tension rippling through the national landscape has left many teachers dejected about their mission as educators. Yet the subjects Rumble teaches, ninth-grade English and journalism, help revitalize her sense of purpose. “There are so many competing opinions [but] through English and journalism, I feel like I’m teaching students the value of accurate information and balance and reporting. I’m actually teaching the value of truth.” Rumble also credits the local school system for its fastidious efforts to ease the weight of national unrest. “They’re doing a really good job of keeping our spirits high, but that’s something I do myself, too. There are so many important things in the work I’m doing with my students that keep me grounded and keep reminding me of why I chose this profession.”
Kelsie Autterson, a developmental kindergarten teacher at Clawson’s Kenwood Elementary School, believes that the trick to staying grounded is recalling her own schooling experience. “I was educated in public schools all my life, and though things can get a bit frustrating at times, I remember that people like Betsy DeVos don’t have the same awareness of the public education system.” DeVos’ recent push for school choice, a policy that funnels public education funds towards the school of a student’s, or in most cases a parent’s, choice — be it public, private, charter, or home-school — has contributed to what Autterson describes as “miseducation.” She’s found that many parents have begun to view the policy in a positive light, but her proximity to its effects says otherwise. “As a teacher, I see that when parents are given more choices, it negatively impacts students. Sometimes, they are pulling their children out of public school districts, and that means that money, jobs, and resources are essentially leaving that school system.” Autterson has become all the more motivated to share her stance on the topic because it stems from her first-hand exposure to its drawbacks.
In the end, Evans concludes that what is central to a healthy education system is love. “We can’t do anything without love,” she says. “That’s very important to this. Teaching is not just something I want to do, I see it as my purpose and my calling.”