Labor Voices: For change, listen to school employees

Steven Cook

‘I feel bad for the younger teachers. They will probably never experience the true joy of teaching because policymakers have made education all about scores and data.”

That comment comes from one of nearly 11,000 respondents to a survey the Michigan Education Association and American Federation of Teachers Michigan conducted asking school employees to share how they feel about the work they do.

Those of us who represent school employees have urged policy makers to ask the experts on the front lines in classrooms across the state what they think about public education in Michigan. In this landmark survey conducted by the state’s two largest education unions, we did just that. The staggering number of responses we received during this one-week online survey proves that school employees are eager to be heard when it comes to education in our state.

The overwhelming sentiment expressed by survey respondents was a lack of appreciation for the work they do. Years of attacks on school employee wages and benefits have made clear to them that lawmakers see little value in the job teachers and school support professionals do.

Many used the term “frustration” — frustration with those same lawmakers who have no expertise in how to run schools continually passing legislation that doesn’t “fit” the challenges their schools and communities face. A significant number of teachers expressed fear for the future of our children’s education as they saw exceptional colleagues driven from the profession by continued attacks on compensation and misguided mandates coming from Lansing.

Another common refrain teachers expressed was opposition to the ever increasing reliance on standardized testing. One teacher put it this way: “I no longer have the ability to be creative in my lesson plans and design them to teach students the critical thinking skills they will need to succeed in today’s job market. I must continually focus on teaching content that will help them achieve high scores on the current standardized test mandated by the state legislature, which ‘dumbs down’ both teaching and learning.”

After expressing concern over the difficulty she was having supporting her family on stagnating wages and the frustration of teaching to the test, one teacher summed it up this way: “I would not encourage my children or my students to go into education.”

These survey results should be a wake-up call for policymakers. They also highlight the importance of electing candidates to public office who will listen and act on what experts in schools across the state are telling them.

It is at the state level that the real impact of policies affecting public schools are felt. It is crucial that we elect candidates to the State House this fall that are willing to listen to what front-line educators have to say.

When a growing number of professional educators — many with master’s degrees — qualify for Bridge cards to feed their family, and, for the second year in a row, a Michigan public teacher has been selected for a Habitat for Humanity home, then policymakers must understand that school employee compensation is a serious problem. When new educators are leaving the profession within the first five years in record numbers — many citing frustration with too much testing and not enough teaching — then policymakers must realize that the proliferation of standardized tests is a serious problem.

Electing candidates who will listen to school employees and act on the expertise they are sharing is essential to improving our public schools.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.