MEA member Leah Porter of Holt was named Michigan Teacher of the Year last spring, prompting her district to assign her a co-teaching role and grant full release for MTOY duties in a tumultuous year.
What have you been doing this fall? “I am visiting as many places as I can, which is challenging with COVID, but I want to be informed and I feel it’s my obligation. What I have seen is a perfect storm that is so exhausting for every layer of people working in education and with no relief in sight. But while everywhere is going through the same struggles, I’ve also witnessed countless moments of educators doing what they do best. Putting students first, working to create learning opportunities that meet the needs of their students, and showing authen- tic care and connection. Despite all of the challenges, we have an incredible teaching force in Michigan. I am proud to be a part of it.”
What is that perfect storm you’re seeing? “The number of vacant positions in every district is huge. Not having enough subs means teachers and other support staff are subbing all the time, often during planning time and breaks, to provide any sort of normalcy in a day. We have more kids back in classrooms, and the academic needs are very large. The social-emotional needs are huge. Districts have money from the COVID-relief packages, but they can’t find people to fill positions to help. Meanwhile, the third grade reading law comes into full effect this year, and state assessments and the whole eval- uation system add more pressure on top.”
What effect is it having? “For anyone working in a school, their job is so much more difficult. We had a lot of these problems before March of 2020, and we were starting to have staffing problems, but we were keeping it together. Now the pandemic put all of it in a pressure cooker, and that pressure cooker is releasing. I fear we’re putting a band- aid on a breaking dam, and we’re going to see the impact of all these decisions we’re making right now for years. It is heart-wrenching to have phenomenal educators across the state, people who love this profession as much as I do, and so many feeling overwhelmed and saying they don’t know how much longer they can do this.”
What would you change with a magic wand? “The last 10 years in Michigan have been incredibly difficult in education, especially in funding and how schools have had to strip down to bare bones. First off, every position would be staffed. We would have far more social work, counseling, behavior specialists to support the trauma that kids have been going through and to support educators. Lowering class sizes. Cutting any standardized testing of kids and evaluation on teachers this year. We were all exhausted coming into this year, but we could be in a different place if we could trust teachers as professionals and give them autonomy to see kids, get to know them, and teach at a pace that is needed.”
What about learning gaps and catching kids up? “I hear a lot about acceleration with children who’ve had all these academic hurdles because of the pandemic—and how do we get them over those hurdles. We don’t get there without looking at the kids in front of us and prioritizing them and their needs. None of the rest of it matters. If we were taking the time to prioritize them, teachers could build classrooms around their needs. But because of these other pressures and what they have to teach every day, that feels like an impossible task.”
What are your hopes and worries for the future? “I am so grateful the teacher shortage is a priority in the [Michigan Department of Education’s] strategic 10-year plan, and we are having important conversations around ways to navigate the shortage for the future. But I worry about the staff in the thick of it right now. My fear is if we don’t address that as soon as possible—like right now—we’re going to have a worse shortage before the end of this school year. And going forward, we need to fight to maintain this level of funding. Just imagine if we did—the power that would have on the lives of children right in front of us and for future generations of children coming through our public schools. We’re talking about the future of our state, our nation. We have to do all we can to fight for them.”