Education, Teachers — January 4, 2015 at 12:10 pm

Eclectablog’s 2014 Person of the Year: Michigan public school teachers


Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that our team has great love for public education and public school educators. There are few groups in Michigan who are so unfairly maligned and held responsible for the failings of others – parents, administrators, and lawmakers, for example – than public school teachers. This heartbreaking situation propels me to write about their plight frequently and often with a great deal of passion and emotion. I make no apologies for that.

Something profound happened in 2014. Teachers really began to speak out on their own behalf in Michigan far more than they ever had before. Teachers are often their own worst enemies, politically-speaking. They are generally in the profession because they simply love to teach children. When political forces work against them, they are more likely to keep their heads down than to speak up or to fight back. In 2014, that began to change in a huge way.

While there are many education heroes from 2014, none are more heroic than the Education Achievement Authority teachers who broke through the culture of fear and intimidation created by former Chancellor John Covington and his staff to tell the real story of what was happening behind the EAA curtain. Stories of physical abuse of both teachers and students, almost unbelievable levels of unprofessionalism, an astonishing lack of resources, and an education model that truly seems designed to fail began to emerge about the EAA and shocked people in Michigan and across the country.

I published the first of more than a dozen interviews I did with EAA teachers on January 22nd of last year. By a month later, the lid had blown off and I had published nearly 40 posts on the EAA situation. Citing my reporting, Senator Hoon-Yung Hopgood calls for the immediate shutdown of the EAA. Chancellor Covington claimed to have done an investigation into the allegations that were coming out in my interviews and, much to nobody’s surprise, found that nothing was wrong and everything was wonderful. Still the stories kept coming from brave teachers willing to tell their stories. The EAA’s communications director went on the attack against teachers that were speaking out and my coverage began to get national attention by education advocates like Diane Ravitch.

Through it all, EAA teachers continued to contact me and to speak out about what they were seeing. “This reminds me of the Tuskegee Experiment,” one veteran EAA teacher, an African American, told me. “These kids deserve so much better,” said another EAA teacher about her special needs students. A former EAA “Teacher of the Year” said, “I was compromising my moral integrity and I couldn’t live with myself”. These men and women risked their jobs to speak out and continued to do so throughout the year.

But it wasn’t just EAA teachers who got active last year. Across the state teachers began to speak out about the situations in our public schools. There were forums and rallies and protests across the state decrying the Republican attacks on education and on educators. When Gov. Snyder began bragging during his reelection campaign that he had INCREASED education spending, teachers, who are on the front lines and could see the devastating impacts of reduced classroom funding, stepped up to set the record straight. While Gov. Snyder’s Democratic opponent Mark Schauer ran ads showing multiple teachers speaking out about their daily reality, the best that Gov. Snyder could manage was to get his neighbor at his million-dollar summer home and the Vice-Chair of the Oakland County Republican Party, both retired teachers, to support him.

During the campaign season, teachers across Michigan began to get involved in the election and to have their voices heard. Several times during my personal canvassing, when I asked the person at the door if we could count on their support for our Democratic candidates, the response was, “Of course you can. I’m a teacher.”

Finally, public school teachers were supported heavily by others in 2014, as well. Democrats in the legislature attempted in vain to pass legislation that would ensure proper funding levels for public education and that would address the problems we see in some of our most difficult school districts in a meaningful way. While their Republican colleagues chose a path of starving public education of much needed financial support and forcing them to “compete” on an unlevel playing field with for-profit charters, Democrats proposed actions that actually showed that they valued public education.

Wayne State University Professor Tom Pedroni was an incredible advocate for public education. His analyses of MEAP test scores showed that education outcomes in Detroit Public Schools both under the Emergency Manager and under the EAA were actually WORSE than they had been under DPS control, shooting down the lies being promulgated by everyone from Chancellor Covington to Gov. Snyder. Prof. Pedroni’s spoke at numerous public events and was frequently cited for his work shining a light on the corporatist forces aligning against public education in Michigan.

The faculty and students in the Eastern Michigan University College of Education deserve special recognition. Professors Steve Camron and Steve Wellinski, as well as the students in the program and a host of others, kept the heat on the EMU Board of Regents to end their relationship with the EAA before further harm is done to the University’s reputation. While they have not been successful, they have kept the issue alive and in the media.

As I said at the start, teachers have a very special place in my heart. The fact is, teachers have a special place in everyone’s heart. I doubt there is a person out there who didn’t have their life changed in a positive way by a public school educator. Teachers should be held in high esteem in our society, not maligned by corporatists and Republicans who demonize them in an effort to shift our public education model and to turn it into a profitized venture that funnels our tax dollars into the bank accounts of private corporations.

I’ll finish with something I wrote about teachers and public education back in 2011 that still resonates with me today.

In any rational society, teachers are not considered “costs”. They are considered assets. Something to be valued. Something to be rewarded. The Republicans have done an amazingly effective job of turning the public’s perception from seeing teachers as a valuable asset to seeing them as parasitic leeches on the jugular vein of society. Rather than valuing them for the important role they play in our society — that of educating our children — they are now coming to be viewed as a “cost”, something to be cut when times get hard.

We have cut their pay, increase the amount they pay for healthcare, reduce their retirement benefits and make it nearly impossible to bargain on their own behalf. And yet we expect them to effectively educate our children. We do this to help pay for massive tax cuts for businesses. And then we expect them to come to work each day, stand in front of the next generation of leaders and scientists and parents and doctors and trash collectors and make them ready to take their place in society.

Meanwhile, we scream collectively that our schools are failing our children.

I’m not sure how doing all of the things we are doing to our teachers constitutes “making our schools better”, to quote Speaker Bolger. What I do know is that a society that devalues its educators is destined to slowly circle the drain until it glugs down into an empty, fetid tub of ignorance and stupidity. It’s not possible for a society to excel or to compete on the world stage when its children are educated by people who are treated as if they are parasites.

Last week my wife and I watched “The King’s Speech”. The lesson we both took away from it was that a single teacher can change the course of the world. Every one of us can look back and remember at least one teacher that made a difference in our lives. What I fear, and we should all fear, is that teachers will quit trying to make a difference. That we will convince them that they are without value and without worth. That the drumbeat of “Leech! Freeloader! Cost! Parasite!” will finally bring them to believe it themselves and to finally give up on caring.

We are at a turning point in our society with regard to the education of our children. What is happening in Michigan and in Wisconsin to our teachers is going to be our nation’s future unless we act soon. We cannot continue to cast teachers as a “cost” to be cut whenever possible. We must turn around our country’s way of thinking about our educators and their value to society. Because, if we don’t, we will become a nation of uneducated fools. When that happens, our destiny will be controlled by the countries that DO value education, not by us.

I tip my hat to our public school teachers and encourage them to continue to speak out, be politically active, and to never back down against the political forces that are trying diminish them. Your supporters and advocates will be there for you but the strongest voices on your behalf are your own.