“I have second generation students right now in my classroom. I taught their parents.”
MICHIGAN — Remember going to your high school football game on a Friday night? Odds are, one of your teachers was coaching the team. Another might be in the stands with their family. Another would wear a plumed hat and conduct the marching band at halftime.
Now imagine a Friday night football game without your teachers. Families in the stands whisper about one another, pointing fingers at grandparents wearing masks. In the concessions booth, no one’s raising money for a school trip – it’s just a guy selling popcorn.
After two years of disinformation schemes, the once-strong bonds between families and schools are in crisis. Teachers are leaving the workforce in droves, while politicians clinging to power spread outrageous accusations, made-up controversies, and false rumors about public education. In many areas, confused and alarmed parents have made daily life dangerous for teachers. The future of public education in Michigan has never been more at risk.
Amanda Sterling* is a high school English teacher in mid-Michigan. She grew up in Lansing and has spent the last two decades teaching in her community — a place she has long loved.
As part of our Q&A series on Michigan’s public education system, we spoke to Sterling about her experiences. We’ll post four of her answers each morning for the next few days.
*Amanda Sterling is a pseudonym. We have verified the teacher’s true identity and employment status, but are granting her request for anonymity so that she may speak freely without fear of retribution or reprisal.
1 – What motivated you to become a teacher?
When I was a high schooler, I had a course and part of the course work was that we were assigned to go into elementary school classes to teach some lessons. Getting in front of those elementary school students, I found my calling.
2 – What roles do public schools play in your community?
Public schools are important to all communities, but especially important in small, rural communities, like where I work. Members of the community identify themselves as a bulldog or as a viking or a wildcat first and foremost. The schools provide athletic opportunities, the schools provide a community center space. The whole community can wrap around the public schools in a smaller, rural or suburban environment. But more importantly, I think schools provide a shared sense of identity and belonging.
Everybody has a stake in their local public schools, even if they don’t have a student there themselves, because strong public schools influence property values and the educated workforce that you might have available to your small business.
3 – What do schools bring to a community over the long run?
I am watching a current bond issue campaign for a nearby school system and something that keeps coming up in the community posts — the public comments — about this vote is how much everybody wants to talk about how school was ‘back in their day.’ And everybody who is local and graduated from the local school system, they have this institutional knowledge and collective memory about how it was, how it should be, how it is, and I think this shared sense of identity that wraps around the school system is an important part of what makes a community a community.
When communities lose their local public school, they lose a large sense of that shared history and identity that brings people together. And we are lacking that in many other aspects of our society right now, as fewer people are churchgoers or Elk Lodge members or members of the kinds of institutions that used to exist but that don’t anymore. I think that’s one of the key values of a public school as an entity, aside from, of course, educating a citizenry and making sure students are job-ready, and thinking, contributing members of the local community.
4 – What do teachers bring to the community? How does the education that people like you provide change and shape a community?
I am struck repeatedly by how much teachers give of themselves. I’m talking about above and beyond their bell-to-bell instructional time. I personally am so appreciative that my own children have teachers who coach, teachers who extend themselves beyond the classroom and give hours of time so that students have these extra opportunities, whether it’s athletics or robotics or jazz band that we kind of take for granted. My children get to do this opportunity or that after-school club and they wouldn’t have those opportunities if the school staff wasn’t giving above and beyond what is in their job description.
Teachers bring so much human capital to a community in what they offer. One of the things that hurts our schools when we have high turnover is that we lose a teacher as a community member. Whether or not that teacher owns a home in that community, as a long-standing employee, they are a community member. I have second generation students right now in my classroom. I taught their parents.
When teachers can stay in a district a long time and be a part of the community, they understand what makes it tick and what’s needed and the unique requirements. They build an AP history course, a theater program or track and field team into a local institution. When we have teacher turnover, when teachers get burned out and move around, that’s harmful for the students of course and the teachers themselves, but it’s also harmful for the community because the stability of a long-term teaching force — that famous teacher who’s been there forever — that’s so valuable.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.