Teaching against the grain: Local educators discuss hardships, stigmas that come with the job

Kindergarten teacher Linda DeLapa prepares her classroom Wednesday for the start of the school year at Brown Elementary School in St. Joseph. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Kindergarten teacher Linda DeLapa prepares her classroom Wednesday for the start of the school year at Brown Elementary School in St. Joseph. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — It’s easy to say teachers have one of the toughest jobs in Michigan, as expectations rise each year with new testing and higher standards.

Many are expected to instruct in new and interesting ways like that of Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie “Dangerous Minds” or Hilary Swank in “Freedom Writers.”

Inside the classroom, things are different.

The list of potential headaches for teachers is long with constant talk over the Common Core national standards, testing and efforts to link test results to teacher evaluations. Throw in the recession-induced budget cuts, and many can see why teachers often receive the short end of the stick.

With school starting across Southwest Michigan this week, educators again face the same hardships each year that some students – and parents – don’t comprehend.

As someone who first got into the teaching profession in 1991, Terry Sheehan has found his niche as an English teacher for Coloma High School. In the 24 years he has been teaching – which included stops in California and Canada – the classrooms and students have somewhat remained the same. Changes have come from the public’s perception of teachers, which Sheehan says has been a gradual shift.

“What I’ve seen in terms of change is in public policy and expectations,” he said. “The terrain has changed in how teachers navigate. Accountability has been a lot more imminent compared to 20 years ago, as far as public policy is concerned. I would say there is a little more scrutiny on the profession in general.”

Among the challenges Sheehan faces – along with any teacher, in any Michigan district – are budget restraints because funding is not secure from year to year. That in turn affects how resources are used.

“That’s the engine that drives other hardships,” he said. “Larger class sizes in the district makes you become a little more stringent.”

In contrast, the number of teachers is decreasing.

Several big states, including Michigan, have seen significant drops in enrollment at teacher training programs. One of the reasons these potential educators are no longer interested in the profession is because the current throng of teachers are evaluated through dropout rates and student test scores.

Results from the 47th annual PDK/Gallup poll of attitudes toward public schools showed the public rejects school accountability built on standardized tests, which has been federal policy through No Child Left Behind.

Once it was signed into law in 2002, the policy mandated annual tests in reading and math and required schools to raise scores every year.

A majority of those polled – 64 percent – said too much emphasis has been placed on testing. The majority polled also said the best way to measure the success of a school is not through tests, but by whether students are engaged and feel hopeful about the future.

“I think there is a disconnect between what happens in Lansing and what happens in a community’s school,” Sheehan said. “Public education is pinned to the whipping post and being blamed for stuff that goes beyond the classroom.

“Sometimes accountability does not translate to what legislators want. It’s a bit of a minefield and can be discouraging for parents, children, teachers, administrators and support staff.”

Assessing hard work

Linda DeLapa teaches kindergarten at Brown Elementary School, which falls under the St. Joseph School District – one of the more financially stable districts in the region. While she has been teaching at Brown for five years, Delapa’s career as an educator has lasted 25 years.

DeLapa said one of the major setbacks teachers deal with every year are student assessments.

“The amount of assessments that are given takes away from instruction time,” she said. “We have assessments that happen all the time with the standardized testing we do. The information we get from it is useful, but it is stressful for the students and the teachers as well.”

A common misconception DeLapa is always dispelling is that teachers have a regular 40-hour work week and that they, like their students, have the summer off. Many teachers take professional development courses during the summer because it’s the only time they can, DeLapa said.

Mary Brown, who retired last April as a mathematics teacher at Benton Harbor’s Montessori Academy at Morton Hill, could not agree more.

Kindergarten teacher Linda DeLapa organizes student name tags as she prepares her classroom Wednesday for the start of the school year at Brown Elementary School in St. Joseph. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Kindergarten teacher Linda DeLapa organizes student name tags as she prepares her classroom Wednesday for the start of the school year at Brown Elementary School in St. Joseph. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

“As a teacher you are on 24/7,” she said. “If you are not working with students you are looking to outside sources and support for learning sources. My children knew I was always on the clock. If you’re a teacher, your life is teaching. It’s all consuming.”

The lack of time constraint doesn’t just fall on teachers.

Bangor schools Superintendent Dennis Paquette said he laughs every time he’s asked what he does with his three months off in the summer.

“I don’t get summers off. I work all year round,” he said. “The teachers have worked at school for summer school, but some have side jobs and run their own businesses. Another myth about our profession is that we go home at 3 o’clock.”

That extra time is often used to help struggling students or prepare for the next week.

“We’re not just teachers, we’re surrogate parents,” Paquette said. “There’s a lot of things that teachers do that the public doesn’t realize. Chefs, coaches – we wear a lot of different hats.”

The Lansing effect

In general, Sheehan said teachers are under appreciated, and the problem comes from the capital.

“Where you see a disconnect and undervaluing of what we do is how teachers are represented in the media and the rhetoric we have coming out of Lansing,” he said. “What happened in the last 20 years is that governments are creating a crisis in education. They’re playing political football with education and that impacts everybody.”

In Van Buren County, the sentiment is the same. Bangor High School English teacher Darla McCrumb said she doesn’t like how the government became more involved with education through state standards and controlling a school’s curriculum.

“When I first started (in 1990) we could teach things outside of the content area,” she said. “I think the micromanaging of legislators and the government impedes everything that we do. They make our job difficult and that’s very tiring.”

One of Paquette’s biggest pet peeves is seeing what comes out of Lansing each year.

“I don’t think someone in Lansing without a degree in education should be telling us how to do our jobs,” he said. “Many of the changes have been positive, but they are not always helping.”

Brown’s problem with decisions made at the state capital comes with state testing.

“The problem was we outsourced the design of the test,” she said. “I don’t think the tests are not valid, they just need to be more realistic. Education has become political and it shouldn’t be.”

The blame game

While Brown said goodbye to the teaching profession she had in Benton Harbor after 20 years of service, her standpoint on a teacher’s troubles remains strong.

As an advocate for assistance in the classroom, Brown said she is worried that with a lack of teaching material, large classrooms will become a problem with no help.

“One teacher alone can’t do it. Our kids come to us with a multitude of problems and we are told to help them,” Brown said. “I come from a distressed school system, and yet I’ve been hearing how education has to be fixed and that teachers are the problem. It isn’t just the teacher’s fault. That’s a very narrow perspective. Job security is on the minds of teachers because they are being rated on student test results. It’s unfair if you don’t give me books or materials and you want them to achieve and then base my pay and employment on that.”

McCrumb said her biggest challenge as a teacher is desperately wanting to connect with a student and trying to find that magic link.

Through her experiences at school, McCrumb said she learned teachers often become “quasi-parents.”

Like many of the teachers in these school districts, McCrumb has gone above and beyond what is called for. McCrumb’s even gone as far as having students stay with her when they had been kicked out of their own house.

“There was one time, I spent the whole weekend in a computer lab with a student so she could finish her graduation requirements,” she said. “It was about a day before graduation when she finished.”

Despite the struggles teachers incur, the need for more educators is as high as ever. DeLapa understands this and is doing her part.

Outside of the work she does at Brown Elementary, DeLapa has a family legacy when it comes to teaching. Her daughter took up the mantle and is now teaching in Memphis, Tenn.

“I was thrilled because she is a natural,” DeLapa said. “It makes me sad because I have heard educators say they would never let their children become teachers. The rewards much out weight the negative. I would not discourage them going into a teaching career.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 6, 2015)

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