Opinion: Michigan, let me teach

Jeff Piechowski

A few years ago, I gave up a beloved radio and television broadcasting career to pursue a career I love even more: teaching. I discovered the classroom in Dallas, where a teacher shortage and straightforward alternative certification program lured me from the microphone. I taught there for three years, and figured transferring my certification to my home state of Michigan would be a simple process.

Nope. Three years in a Texas classroom, an active Texas teaching certificate and a graduate degree in education aren’t enough.

I passed the Michigan Teacher Test for Certification in my content area this spring. I’m also teaching at an alternative school in Flint Township under a one-year Temporary Provisional Certificate.

However, in order to drop the word “temporary” and add my special education endorsement, I needed to pass the Professional Readiness Exam (PRE) — a three-part exam consisting of reading, math and writing. I did not pass the math portion before the one-year certification expires. So, in the eyes of the Michigan Department of Education, I will not be fit to teach.

My co-workers hadn’t heard of this exam. The MDE allowed them to use their ACT scores instead. But MDE bylaws allow the ACT only for those who took it from 1989 on. I took mine during the 1986-87 school year.

I’m not alone. The Oakland Press reported in 2015 that only one-third of those enrolled in a state university teacher prep program pass all parts the first time around. According to the Petoskey News-Review last month, not much has changed since. Moreover, MDE insists PRE questions are based on recent 12th grade, state core curricula. But a Baker College representative finds this troubling, given that their average student is 29 years old and wouldn’t have been subject to some of this material a decade ago.

Me? Twelfth grade was 30 years ago. So, with just weeks left for me to retake and pass this test, I went online to register, only to find out that the MDE now no longer offers the PRE.

I was told something even more puzzling: I must now take the SAT.

As I approach age 50, with a 20-year broadcasting career and an advanced degree, and in my fifth year of teaching, I must take a college prep exam — alongside students as young as those I teach.

Given the hoops I have jumped through already, the attrition rate for Michigan’s new educators is no surprise, as it keeps pace with the national average. A recent University of Pennsylvania study found nearly 40 percent of teachers will leave the profession within the first five years.

Despite the common talking point, it’s certainly not the pay. National statistics show Michigan teachers boast the 11th-highest pay rates in the country. And of the 10 states where teachers earn more per year on average, seven are among the top 10 most expensive states to live in, according to CNBC’s 2017 rankings.

I’m not a math teacher. I don’t want to be one. But I am a great teacher.

My district abuts Flint, and shares many of Flint’s problems: poverty, struggling single-parent families and crime. I like to think I give my students hope, which many of them never had when it came to academics. I show up each day with a passion for what I do, and hope that my love for learning rubs off on them. And what I do each day has nothing to do with a math test.

The 2017 job description for many educators isn’t solely about academia. Some must teach social skills and model proper behavior. And yes, in districts like mine, some teachers are the strong male presence that so many students lack in their lives.

Dealing with slope and intercept doesn’t do me or my students a damn bit of good when it comes to dealing with these bigger life issues.

I hope MDE Superintendent Brian Whiston and his colleagues realize how difficult some of their policies make it to recruit good, intelligent, caring individuals to the classroom. Especially career changers like me, in urban districts like mine.

I’d like to see Whiston and MDE members take the PRE or SAT in order to keep their jobs. How many of them would fail?

I can teach. The state of Texas knows this. So do my current students, their caregivers and my administrators. Most importantly, this is all I want to do. So I implore you, Michigan Department of Education: Please, let me teach.

Jeff Piechowski is a temporary teacher in Michigan.