It’s commencement season again in Michigan. Graduation is a time for making important choices about life and career plans. But it’s not just students who stand at the crossroads. Sometimes, teachers find themselves making hard decisions at the end of the school year. The challenge before Michigan is to keep more teachers walking in than walking out.
All over Michigan, school kids are dreaming of ditching their books for the summer. But Alex Rogers is already excited for next year. In the fall, she’ll start school in Holt as a brand new third grade teacher.
Rogers just finished her teaching internship in April. She still remembers the conversations she used to have with people five years ago as a new transfer student at Michigan State University.
“When people asked me why I was coming here and I told them, ‘teaching,'" says Rogers. "More times than not, I got people that would just pause or freeze in their steps and go, 'Really? Why?'”
Alex Rogers knows the paradox she will soon face. There’s an old-fashioned sentiment in America that still speaks of teachers in the same reverent, “pillar of society” tones afforded to police officers and firefighters.
But the appreciation is rarely reflected in compensation.
“Over half of our teachers leave within the first five years, and a lot of that is for financial reasons," says Michigan Education Association economist Ruth Beier.
Beier says a married teacher with a non-working spouse making the state’s $36,000 average starting salary qualifies for the Bridge card food assistance program. Beier says ever since districts saw their revenues cut a decade ago...many teachers have stayed frozen on the ladder.
“I was just in a district north of here; they’ve had teachers at the beginning step for eight years," she says. "No raise. No inflationary raise, nothing. They’re making $36,000 a year for eight years.”
Just three years in, the bell is sounding for Gerry Cohoon.
Cohoon teaches ninth grade U.S. history at Holt High School. Throughout his career, he’s supplemented his income in the summer by working in road construction. Now, a full-time opportunity has arisen...and Cohoon admits it took him by surprise.
“The position I was offered; it would take me probably another 10 or 15 years of teaching to get to that level," says Cohoon.
The moment took this wrestling coach to the mat. Cohoon struggled a long time with the decision. Last January, he wrote his resignation.
“I was sitting at my desk, and I think I stood up and sat down about four different times before I finally took it downstairs," Cohoon recalls. "I had to ask myself, every single time: is this the right decision? I love teaching, I love being here with the kids every day. But at the end of the day, I think my decision was, you work to make a living, so I want to make the best one that I can.”
The paycheck isn’t the only factor that drives a teacher’s motivations, though money weighs in on a host of other concerns. Teacher walkouts this year in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Colorado and Arizona have also pushed for more material support in the classroom.
Corey Drake is the director of teacher preparation at Michigan State University’s College of Education at Michigan State University. It’s her job to help emerging new teachers keep their ideals while still keeping it real.
Drake says that involves having honest conversations about the realities of their chosen career.
“This is the world you’re going into and there are policies and curricula and tests; and part of what we’re preparing you for is how to navigate those in ways that leave you hopefully not feeling burnt out that help you think about ways to advocate for yourself and for your students," Drake says.
Alex Rogers, the soon-to-be Holt elementary teacher, is unfazed.
“I think a lot of people will try to steer new teachers away," Rogers notes. "They’ll say that it might not be worth it financially, or it’s very hard and strenuous for many different reasons. But I think that if it’s something that you feel that you’re meant to do, that you need to take that chance. Because more than likely...you’ll be happy doing it.”
And that brings us to the kicker of this story. Remember Ruth Beier, the teachers union numbers cruncher? Guess what she’s doing next.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, but I just couldn’t afford it," Beier concedes. "So I actually had to work an entire career and save enough money for my retirement so I could teach.”
Beier is finishing her education to be certified to teach K-8. She hopes to teach middle school math in a couple of years.
“I think it’s the most important job there is," she says. "If you don’t have quality people teaching the next generation, then what’s the next generation going to be?”