A longtime teacher, now principal of Geisler Middle School in Walled Lake, MEA-Retired member Sheryl Kennedy is among several Michigan educators stepping up to run for political office this year.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Davison which is the district that I’m running for state representative in. When I grew up it was mostly blue-collar UAW; everyone worked for General Motors in some way. I taught in that community for 10 years. Now our schools face 40 to 60 percent free and reduced lunch, so the struggle is what can we do to mediate the effects of parents working two or three jobs at minimum wage to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads?
Why did you become a principal?
My PhD was focused on how teachers persist through challenges, specifically using professional learning communities. I came here to do that work, to build the capacity of teachers for the purpose of closing the achievement gap and turning the school around. I’ve got the hardest working teachers in the district. I love my teachers. We just had our data day and we did—together we turned the school around. Now we outperform the expected growth for the State of Michigan in all subcategories. And I just practiced what I knew: If you get teachers together and give them opportunities to learn from each other, great things happen.
Have you always been interested in politics?
I was a building rep for MEA and eventually I was grievance chair and vice president in negotiations. I don’t think you can do union work and not be interested in politics, because you’re more aware of both good and poor policy. I’ve volunteered for campaigns going back to the mid-90s. Always worked for those pro-education people. Knocked on doors, made the phone calls. I also lobbied our legislators, both as an MEA member and now as a MASA and MASSP member, so when educational legislation is coming up, I know my legislators by name and they know me.
Why did you decide to run for the state House?
Our building is so diverse—we have over 30 languages represented, a number of different faiths, and a lot of poverty. What I have seen in my building is a fear and anxiety that hadn’t previously existed. At the same time, I’m seeing the best teachers burning out, exhausted, walking away. The teachers that my own kids had growing up, I see them at the store and they’ve got a different shirt on with a different logo. The best math teacher ever, I’m like, “Oh. Did you get a second job?” Answer—“Nope. I walked away from teaching.” I love this profession so much. It is what I have given my entire life to. I just believe desperately there needs to be someone with a voice at the table who has walked the walk and can speak a little bit of reason when non-educators are coming up with well-intentioned really awful policies.
Did you ever imagine yourself as a candidate?
No. I’m not going into politics because it’s the next step for me or because I’m looking to increase my salary or because I’m looking for any- thing other than the opportunity to serve and lead. I’ve spent my whole life in one capacity or another serving and leading.
What is your platform beyond education?
Education is what drives me, but as important is jobs and protecting labor rights. In my mind, labor rights are civil rights. The best way that I can support my community is by protecting the rights of labor. We were a labor community to begin with, and when our community began to fail is when labor began to be destroyed at the policy level. I believe that if I can focus on those two things, it will have an exponential impact and a generational impact on my community.