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  • Writer's pictureJessyca Stoepker

Beyond teaching: When all else fails, educators keep students--and communities--afloat

Teachers are priceless. It's a fact I've acknowledged since primary school, when I realized I had never seen Mrs. Avery NOT smiling despite the infinite poop jokes and temper tantrums of second graders.

Source: Wix Media

And yet, it cannot be understated, especially when educators are chronically underpaid. The average US teacher salary is $39,249. In Michigan, it's less than $37,000. Ouch.

Education was the topic for December's monthly Leadership Little Traverse training day. We met bright and early at North Central Michigan College (NCMC), where we spent most of the day touring their facilities, listening to educators and school administrators, presenting with purpose, engaging in dialogue with our peers, practicing new communication techniques, brainstorming ideas, and problem-solving from different perspectives. And for about an hour, we also broke into teams to perform site visits at either Concord Academy, Petoskey High School, Sheridan Elementary, or Taylor School.

Before the day started, I felt that I had a fair amount of knowledge for this system. I had recently exited high school and college, had taught bi-weekly science classes to differently-abled students, and spent a significant amount of time working with Grand Rapids Public Schools, specifically Campus Elementary on Benjamin Ave. Even since moving to Petoskey, I have become involved in the Farm to School program as well as several activities involving NCMC.

But no matter how prepared I may feel, LLT sessions have a tendency to pop my brain right open and stuff it with more.

For starters, I didn't know that charter schools are publicly funded, therefore open to all students and tuition-free. And I have judged charter schools before understanding what value they bring to education. It is pleasing to know of their ability to both diversify and tailor curriculum to enrich their students' lives.

I have also misjudged trade schools and other non-university routes. I have held this assumption that, however much money a lineman or welder may make, individuals in these fields may lack a sense of accomplishment or connection in their work, or a true sense of purpose. I have since realized that it is naive to think this way and to make these generalizations.

Experiential learning comes in various forms, and is exciting and valuable. Watch this video of Charlevoix-Emmet ISD's excavator simulator, one of two we tested.

Community colleges have "community" in their name for a reason. NCMC has formed a highly symbiotic relationship with Petoskey, bringing in jobs, entertainment, higher standards of living, and resources like recreation activities (pickleball!!!) and meeting spaces. Their commitment to professional development, Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes, and ensuring community access is huge.

And, while no surprise, the message that educators face incredible challenges every day was strongly reinforced. The needs of students are different than even 5 years ago, and the methods of delivering instruction are shifting so fast.

Let's analyze that last paragraph in more depth. Here's a related question from our short prep work quiz.

Which of the following do local teachers state as their biggest challenge in effectively educating today's students?

  1. Class Sizes

  2. Lack of Sufficient Materials

  3. Social and Emotional Factors

  4. Increasing Legislative Demands (including state testing mandates)

  5. School Safety

While many of these are interrelated and intertwined, the correct answer is number three. Why? And what is meant by "social and emotional factors"?

The emotional baggage children bring to school...

When I interned at the Kent County Health Department, I attended a few meetings between administrators, parents, and community partners hosted at Campus Elementary. Among other things, I quickly learned that meeting state and federal standards--especially the new third grade reading level requirement--was not just a matter of prioritizing reading over math. It involved everything.

First, students had to be present in school to do well. A large percentage regularly missed classes. Many of them missed class because of factors beyond the school's control: domestic abuse or neglect, violence, or little parental support. If parents aren't around to wake kids up in the morning, is it likely for them to get to school on time, if at all? Even the best parents couldn't always be there if they work the midnight shift.

Lack of stable housing is another heavy hitter. The GRPS superintendent provided reports showing how lack of affordable housing directly correlated to student attendance. If new units suddenly went on the market with lower monthly rent, families would move immediately--forcing the child to switch schools without notice, and leave behind whatever progress they had made in their old classroom.

Second, students have to be healthy and fed in order to learn. Studies have shown that memory, retention, and problem-solving skills are negatively affected by hunger, not to mention focus and attitude. According to Feeding America, children facing hunger are more likely to:

  • Repeat a grade in elementary school

  • Experience developmental impairments in areas like language and motor skills

  • Have more social and behavioral problems

In the Little Traverse Bay region, one out of five children lives in a household that is food insecure. According to the Michigan League for Public Policy, 38.7 percent of students in Emmet County and 45.4 in Charlevoix County qualified for free or reduced price lunch. In 2018, those numbers stood at 41.2 percent and 50.7 percent, respectively.

This could mean anything from dollar store dinners for every meal, to skipping meals. One eighth grade boy who visits the Northmen Den, a food pantry at Petoskey Middle School, was quoted in a survey last year, saying, "I only eat one meal a day--(school) lunch."

Housing, hunger, domestic problems--these ongoing factors can make good grades and that upcoming exam seem like just more obstacles for students to make it through. Throw in an accident, poor mental health, or a school bully, and these kids may find school standards impossible.

And they don't leave these things at could they? Even mature adults find it hard to separate personal from professional.

Take these paragraphs written by an anonymous educator from The Guardian, known as The Secret Teacher. "Ofsted" refers to the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills, a non-ministerial department of the UK government that reports to Parliament.

"...the biggest obstacle to learning is not what’s going on in the classroom, but what’s going on outside it. Teachers across the nation face the baggage that children bring to lessons every single day and unless they feel supported to really become in loco parentis, effective teaching and learning is compromised.

We are a “good” school, but allegedly not yet outstanding because not enough pupils are making expected progress. Ofsted is not interested in the story behind her lack of progress. In the inspectorate’s eyes, that child is holding our school back and that’s a black mark against my name as their teacher.

The teacher manual – and Ofsted – need to wake up to complexities of modern teaching. Children spend six hours in my classroom every day, 30 hours a week. They spend more waking hours with me during the week than they spend with their own parents. I know everything about them. Sometimes, I think I know them better than their family. There is little space to hide anything in the classroom environment. Family problems, issues and secrets are shared with me. Children need to be assured that they’ll be treated in a compassionate, human way – not ignored by their teacher who is so anxious about crossing boundaries that they can’t offer emotional support."

Why is it that teachers have inherited so many responsibilities? Is it because their harmonizing and compassionate natures overflow into their work? Or is it because the rest of our systems are failing us, and the compounding effects of crumbling societies leave our children with trauma that can only bubble out at school?

Our K-12 teachers are becoming less like educators and more like human service workers. It makes sense that the Secret Teacher wrote, "I have three roles in my classroom: teacher, parent and social worker. Sometimes, the actual teaching part is the least important of all."

...and what we can do to help.

As each LLT team presented their findings from their site visits, it became apparent that, while each school kept their individuality, they had overlapping characteristics by which we were all impressed.

Specific words kept jumping into my head throughout the day. Innovative. Adaptive. Holistic. Connected. Complementary. Tailored. The schools adapt to their community members' individual needs and talents, adapting to their strengths and seizing future potential. And every. Single. Person. we met was so incredibly passionate--their dedication and care for their students emanated from their bodies and made the whole room excited. The high school dedicates a room for recording "connections" with students; out of nearly 1,000 students listed, the majority showcased green stickers that symbolized when a teacher made a personal connection with them. Sheridan Elementary has a school garden, and Taylor School students volunteer during the school day at local nonprofits for community familiarity and life skills.

Some AHA moments voiced by my cohort:

"I think the biggest thing for me was seeing how intentional and deliberate our educators in this community are, especially at the high school. They are not just going through the motions of their day, they are actively trying to engage and improve the education for our kids."

"My Aha was seeing the [wall of] green stickers at the high school. I’m still [amazed] of how many students and teachers have a connection. It was eye opening to see that teacher[s] are caring and getting involved with their students behind the class work. It really inspired me to want to get involved with students and teachers in the local area."

Every issue that arose within the school district--whether it was lack of resources, shifting job fields, violence, or student health--was thoroughly studied and quickly addressed. So many people, myself included, talk about wanting to make change, while only a fraction actually put in the work to create it. This training day taught me that teachers are doers. If there is ever a problem, educators are the people that will adapt, overcome, and SOLVE it--even if doing so will never be found in their job description.

All that work for an average Michigan salary of $37k.

But that's why we were there. That's why we were learning about this structural system: so that we, as leaders, can spark change and do community better.

My site team visited Concord Academy, a public charter school with a STEAM focus--that is, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and art interwoven through it all. Amid the beautiful paintings and art pieces decorating every inch of the building, we saw their resilience in the face of underfunded resources and their deep connection to students on an individual level. Student choice was paramount. Our guide knew every student's name and story.

Before our next LLT training, my teammates and I intend to write a cohesive letter together on Google Docs thanking Concord administrators and telling them what we have learned. We also will provide ideas in a type of open-ended offer: me to expand food assistance within the school, Elly to involve the science/robotics students with her workplace, and Meghan to involve the art students with painting Habitat for Humanity homes or helping with their construction.

Our aim is not to overstep our capacities, but to really make sure Concord administrators know their time was appreciated--and that we want to support them in whatever ways we can. I'm also planning to step into a bigger role for Petoskey's Farm to School program, hopefully to funnel several existing efforts into one organized front. It might not be much, or it might not turn into anything at all, but it's another way we're activating our community's potential.

Our LLT cohort after a long, fun day of education (the glasses were a teacher's idea...can you tell?)

This was a hefty one--so if you made it this far, thanks for reading! I'm looking forward to next month's LLT topic of human services. Catch you later!

All the best,


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