It's that time of year when parents give their kids' teachers a gift of appreciation for the hard and important work they do. A gift card or hand soap is fine, but what Detroit teachers really want from parents and their community is respect for their professionalism, more funding for supplies, and a willingness to advocate for larger issues that affect their ability to do their jobs.
Teachers have some of the most difficult, least appreciated jobs in the country. And while they're certainly underpaid, there's a number of other ways the city of Detroit, the school system, and the community can better support its teachers.
First and foremost, teachers want people to understand they are professionals with degrees — often advanced degrees — and deserve the same respect and pay as other professions.
"We [as a society] accept the mythology of teacher as volunteer or public servant," says Tara Baker, an English teacher at Western International High School in Detroit. "We need to stop this idea of teacher as a martyr, someone who says, 'I will do anything for my kids, even starve.' That shouldn't be asked of us."
The devaluing of teachers' expertise also plays out in a lack of freedom to teach as they see fit based on the needs of the kids in their classrooms.
Teachers shouldn't be forced to follow a strict test-focused curriculum that stifles creativity and isn't responsive to the wide variety of kids they may see in a day, says Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers
"Teachers feel that there is a lack of respect, and not just in our local community, but nationally," she says. "There are a lot of demands being put on teachers, and a lot of teachers are being scripted and not allowed to teach. Teachers went into teaching to teach."
Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers
That's in large part because of a culture of high-stakes testing and inconsistent evaluation standards between Detroit and the rest of the state. "We don't give doctors a book when they're going into surgery and tell them, 'These are the words you have to say and the exact way you have to cut,'" she says. "Give teachers the standards that each child has to meet and let them teach."
This process could be improved if evaluations and standards were the same across the state. "It's not helpful to pit people against each other," Bailey says. "Detroit is held to a whole other standard and is the only district in Michigan that can hire uncertified teachers."
A positive relationship between parents and teachers goes a long way toward creating a better classroom environment. Parents can bring their own baggage when meeting with their child's teacher, says DPSCD deaf and hard of hearing special education teacher Nina Chacker. But she considers it her responsibility understand that impulse and work to build trust with parents.
"Teachers are under a lot of pressure to deal with things that are not their fault," she says. "Parents come in with biases that are sometimes unfounded and sometimes not — they are a product of their experiences."
Nina Chacker in the classroom
Parents can also help support teachers by advocating for them in Lansing and at the local level. Teachers would like to see better pay and benefits, but also better working conditions, more fair evaluations, and sufficient funding to help kids who come to school with special needs.
Support aimed at specific schools or teachers, such as social media fundraising campaigns, school supply drives, and the like are appreciated, but speaking up for issues at the school board and in Lansing would improve the lives of all teachers and the families they serve.
"I think that people who know individual teachers support them a lot, but when they think of voting on a millage or how they feel about contract negotiations, they tend to lump teachers into a group," Baker says. "They would do anything for the teacher they know, but look unfavorably on teachers as a whole."
Too often, the decisions that come down from Lansing are made while teachers are in the classroom doing their jobs. "A teacher going to Lansing is frowned upon if they do it during the school day," Bailey says. "The community at large — the mayor, the superintendent (and a cadre of parents) — need to take on that fight."
Locally, Chacker says that she’d like to see community members do things like go to a local religious school and ask them to pledge not to take vouchers if the federal government allows them — which could draw students, and thus funding, from public schools. Community members could also advocate for access to curriculum materials for special education students like the ones she teaches. Those address the real issues teachers face in a way no backpack drive can.
What happens in the school building affects teachers' ability to do their jobs, but so does what happens in the community as a whole. Issues that might not seem at first like education issues can affect what goes on in the classroom.
High foreclosure and eviction rates mean kids move around a lot and don't stay in the same school for long, impacting their ability to form teacher and peer relationships. Water shutoffs cause a host of health problems, not to mention social ones when kids can't take a full bath or have easy access to clean clothes. A lack of public transportation means students can't get to school if they can’t afford bus fare or if the bus from their neighborhood is unreliable. Parents often don't have sick time, which means older siblings need to stay home from school to care for their younger siblings.
"No matter how many changes we make inside the school, we also need to make changes that affect kids coming in," Chacker says.
People concerned about the well-being of school kids in Detroit can draw the connection between these issues and issues facing schools, and work toward policy change that improves lives for all Detroiters. Supporting justice for the most vulnerable at a community level will translate to more effective teaching at the school level, because children are able to come to school ready to learn.
Finally, treating education as a public good, and recognizing it as a community asset, is perhaps the strongest show of support the community can make. "Public education is a worthy cause, and it's something that this nation has believed in for 200 years," Baker says.
"A strong democracy comes from a strong public education."
This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
Photos by Nick Hagen.