Op-Ed: It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. Investing in Education is the Best Way to Show Our Gratitude

Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Trenton) speaks on the campaign trail in 2022. (Darrin Camilleri via Facebook)

By Sen. Darrin Camilleri

May 9, 2023

We all have a favorite teacher. Someone who inspired and impacted us, shaped or maybe even changed our courses and career paths. Someone that always comes to mind for the rest of their lives.

For me, I had many, but three really stand out to this day: Ms. Cathy Napieralski, Ms. Loretta Sovel, and Ms. Anna Fedor. During high school, these three not only pushed me to love social studies and the arts respectively, but they taught me a love of learning and pushed me out of my comfort zone academically and creatively. In each, I saw how much they cared about me as a student—so much so that I kept in touch with them long after graduation. They had a significant influence on me as a student, again as a teacher myself, and today and every day as a lawmaker, especially one charged with important education policy and funding decisions.

My first job out of college was teaching high school social studies, and I got into it as an act of service. When I got into the classroom, though, I realized something was very wrong. I had no textbooks, no curriculum, and was appointed department chair on the first day. My students and I faced countless challenges, often without support, and it all belied a simple fact: we don’t appreciate our teachers the way we should. 

If improving outcomes for students is our top priority, we need to invest in our teachers and give them the pay, benefits, and respect they deserve for dedicating their lives to educating the next generation. 

It was that experience in the classroom that led me to run for office in the first place. I knew I wanted to enact change on a grander scale to improve our education system and impact kids and teachers, and it’s this same goal that continues to drive me in the Senate each day. 

Just as teaching shapes the futures of the individual students who come through our classrooms, in my current role as a policymaker, I am honored to be able to help shape the futures of all Michigan students, parents, teachers, schools and communities.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, and there are an array of ways to appreciate our teachers this week and year-round. And it starts with simply listening to them.

For too long, the students, parents, teachers, schools and communities most impacted by education policy and funding decisions have been largely left out of the conversation.

But with a new Democratic majority in the Michigan Senate for the first time in 40 years, a Democratic trifecta with the House Democratic majority and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, we have the opportunity to do things differently.

That is especially true in the realm of education, as Democrats have brought a fresh perspective and a new approach. We are closely connected to the communities and people we represent and value the input of educators and the individuals most directly impacted by policy decisions.

And that has been a clear distinction from day one. In a historic move, the House and Senate Democratic majorities appointed four former educators to chair the House and Senate education policy and budget committees, including myself as Chair of the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee. Our leaders value the voice of educators and the firsthand experience we bring to the table.

I have taken the responsibility of budgeting for schools across the entire state very seriously, and I wanted to make sure that work was informed by as many different people and perspectives as possible and not just the confines of a Lansing committee room. 

That’s why I decided to do a statewide education tour to collect insight from a range of Michigan educators and incorporate their feedback into the forthcoming state budget. The tour included visiting schools in Dearborn and Macomb County and holding a roundtable discussion with teachers and students in Kentwood.

State Sens. Winnie Brinks (left) and Darrin Camilleri (right) speak with teachers in West Michigan.

We also held official PreK-12 Subcommittee committee meetings on the road at Yake Elementary School in Woodhaven and Mumford High School in Detroit—one of the first joint budget hearings ever held outside of Lansing. At these meetings, we heard from community members, local teachers, students, and union leaders to talk about the struggles they are facing and what help we can provide at the state level.

Our historic PreK-12 education budget we put together was a direct result of these conversations and input. As a former teacher, crafting a state education budget with students and teachers at the forefront was my top priority.

Among other things, our budget recommendation includes a number of important investments for students. This includes increasing the foundation allowance to $9,700 per pupil—the highest level in history, higher weighted funding formulas for students with greater needs, and an approach to at-risk funding never before seen in Michigan that will improve equity and flexibility. The budget also includes funding for free school meals for all students and universal preschool.

But we also are seeking to do more for teachers, with significant investments in teacher recruitment and retention, including a new student loan reimbursement pilot program for teachers. We need to be approaching teacher retention and recruitment on multiple fronts, looking at ways to pay our teachers better as well as ways to reduce their debt. I’m also excited to begin a conversation around ways to increase teacher pay and benefits.

Teaching is often a career decision driven by the heart, but we want to make it a more financially feasible profession as well. Our kids deserve the best teachers, and our teachers deserve the best policies. As conversations on the final budget continue, as well as ongoing education policy discussions, I will keep fighting to make sure the needs of teachers, students and parents are heard and at the forefront of all of our decisions. That is the best way for us to show our appreciation for teachers and the work they do every day. 

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