Teaching after a year in the crossfire

Jan 25, 2012

It’s been a tough few years for teachers. Classes are bigger. Pay is down. Benefits cost more.

And, in the last year, teachers across the Midwest have been at the center of collective bargaining fights in Wisconsin and Ohio. With all that, we wanted to know what it’s like to be a teacher today. So, three generations assembled in Lila Howard’s classroom at Saline High School near Ann Arbor.

Howard is about to retire after years teaching AP Psychology. Jason Gumenick teaches government and is in the middle of his career. Then, there’s David Dolsen, a college freshman, who had both of the others as teachers.

“They’re probably two of my favorite teachers in high school and also two of my mentors here as well,” he said as the three sat at a table in the classroom.

Now, he wants to become a teacher and looks to Lila Howard and Jason Gumenick for advice. He knows they love what they do, but he hears from Howard what they’re going through.

“Taking away your bargaining rights, taking away your job security, tenure, money, things like that. So, how do you feel about that, David?” Howard asked. “Are those concerns you’re mulling around in your mind?”

“Definitely,” Dolsen said. “The only reason I’m not 100% sure that I would want to be a teacher is essentially because of those issues. The pay for teachers even is not very good, obviously, and there’s just no real security now.”

Jason Gumenick and Lila Howard have already seen their pay cut, and benefit costs rise. Howard thinks she’ll need to get another job in retirement. Jason Gumenick, who’s 37 and newly married, is not running out the classroom door, but in the back of his mind, he’s thinking what he could do if he were to leave teaching.

“I think a lot of teachers need to start thinking about Plan B,” Gumenick said. “Administration, public policy, business, different opportunities that might be out there.”

Howard chimed in: “Overall morale has, I think, drastically changed as a result of what’s going on in education.”

As David Dolsen, the college freshman hears all this, he begins to realize there might not be opportunities for him at home.

“I don’t think I could get a job in Michigan in teaching probably, or even in the Midwest from what it sounds like,” he said.

And, he’s thinking about alternatives.

“I’ve started to look at engineering.”

But not so fast. There’s some good news for prospective teachers like Dolsen. Dr. Cathy Rosemary, who chairs the education department at John Carroll University, says we could soon need a lot of them in the classroom.

“In the next ten years I see a big shortage,” she said. “Because I think classrooms—schools in general—are populated largely by women in their 50s and 60s and there will be time in the next decade when these folks will be retiring.”

Not only that, Craig Brown, a lawyer who represents school boards, says the changes in teachers’ contracts can benefit those new teachers entering the field. Loosening seniority rules can help the young get ahead.

“We’ve all read and heard about that teacher of the year in Indiana who was laid off after that school year because she was a young, new, exciting teacher but she didn’t have the seniority to maintain her job when the district faced financial difficulties,” Brown said.
And, for all the angst among teachers and prospective teachers, Lila Howard says this is still a calling. She wouldn’t trade this job.

“The students are the best thing about teaching,” she said. “That’s the bottom line. Being with them every day. Working with incredibly wonderful young people. The future of our society!”

And, as Howard works her last few months in Saline before retiring, all the political focus on teachers has her thinking of running for school board.

Sarah Alvarez contributed to this story. It was informed by the Public Insight Network.