Stephanie Keiles has worked as a public school teacher for a dozen years in Michigan. She loves her students — but she just made what she called “one of the hardest decisions” of her life: to quit her job and start teaching at a private school. In this post, she explains why she feels like she has been driven out of public education. Her story strikes the same notes sounded by many other teachers in public schools who are finding their jobs being made increasingly difficult because of school reforms that have limited teacher autonomy, over-emphasized standardized tests and underfunded public education. A version of this first appeared on the webpage of the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education, and I am republishing it with permission.
By Stephanie Keiles
I am sitting here in my lovely little backyard on a beautiful Michigan summer day, drinking a Fat Tire Amber Ale, and crying. I am in tears because today I made one of the hardest decisions of my life. I resigned from my job as a public school teacher. I didn’t want to leave — but I feel like I had no choice.
First, a little background. I didn’t realize that I wanted to be a math teacher until I was 28. As a kid, I was always told I was “too smart” to be a teacher, so I went to business school instead. I lasted one year in the financial world before I knew it was not for me. I read a quote from Millicent Fenwick, the (moderate) Republican Congresswoman from my home state of New Jersey, where she said that the secret to happiness was doing something you enjoyed so much that what was in your pay envelope was incidental. I quit my job as an analyst at a large accounting firm, determined to find my passion. I floundered for a while, and then eventually got married and decided to be a stay-at-home mom until my kids were in school. Then I would need to find that passion.
I was pregnant with my oldest child, sitting on a sofa in Stockholm, Sweden, when I had my epiphany — I would be a math teacher. A middle school math teacher! I thought about it and it fit my criteria perfectly. No, I wasn’t thinking about the pension, or the “part-time” schedule, or any of the other gold-plated benefits that uninformed people think we go into the profession to receive. Two criteria: I would enjoy it, and I would be good at it.
Nine years and four kids later, I enrolled in Eastern Michigan University’s Post-Baccalaureate teacher certification program, and first stepped into my own classroom at the age of 40. I was teaching high school, because that’s where I had my first offer, and I was given five classes of kids who were below grade-level in math. And I loved it. I knew I had found my calling.
After three years I switched districts to be closer to home and to teach middle school, where I belonged. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven! I was hired to teach in my district’s Talented and Gifted program, so I had two classes of eighth graders who were taking Honors Geometry, and three classes of general eighth-grade math. This coming year, I was scheduled to have five sections of Honors Geometry — all my students would be two, and sometimes three, years advanced in math. I was also scheduled to have my beloved first hour planning period, and I was excited to work with a new group of kids on Student Council. It was looking to be a great year — and I’m still walking away.
My friends, in real life and on Facebook, know that I am a huge supporter of public education. I am a product of public schools, and so are my children. Public education is the backbone of democracy — but we all know there is a privatization movement trying to undermine it.
I became an activist after Gov. Rick Snyder and his Republican compatriots took over the Michigan government and declared war on teachers. I am part of a group called Save Michigan’s Public Schools, which put on a rally for public education two years ago at the Capitol steps that drew over 1,000 people from all over the state with just three weeks’ notice and during summer break. I have testified in front of the Michigan House Education Committee against lifting the cap on charter schools, and also against the Common Core State Standards. I attended both conferences of the Network for Public Education to meet with other activists and bring back ideas to my compadres in Michigan. I have been fighting for public education for five years now, and will continue to do so.
But I just can’t work in public education anymore. I have been forced to comply with mandates — from the Republicans at the state level and the Democrats at the national level — that are NOT in the best interest of kids. I am tired of having to perform what I consider to be educational malpractice, in the name of “accountability”. The amount of time lost to standardized tests that are of no use to me as a classroom teacher is mind-boggling. And when you add in mandatory quarterly district-wide tests, which are used to collect data that is ignored, you get a situation that is beyond ridiculous.
Sometimes I feel like I live in a Kafka novel. This is No. 1 on my district’s list of how to close the achievement gap and increase learning: Making sure that all teachers have their learning goals posted every day in the form of an “I Can” statement. I don’t know how we ever got to be successful adults when we had no “I Can” statements on the wall.
In addition, due to a chronic, purposeful underfunding of public schools here in Michigan, my take-home pay has been frozen or decreased for the past five years, and I don’t see the situation getting any better in the near future. No, I did not go into teaching for the money, but I also did not go into teaching to barely scrape by, either. As a 10-year teacher in my district, I would be making 16 percent less than a 10-year teacher was when I was hired in 2006.
Plus I now have to pay for medical benefits, and 3 percent of my pay is taken out to fund current retiree health care, which has been found unconstitutional for all state employees except teachers. And I’m being asked to contribute more to my pension. Financial decisions were made based on anticipated future income that never materialized for me and for thousands and thousands of other public school teachers.
The thought of ANY teacher having to take a second job to support him/herself at ANY point in his/her career is disgusting, yet that’s what I was contemplating doing. At 53, with a master’s degree and 12 years of experience.
If I were poorly compensated but didn’t have to comply with asinine mandates and a lack of respect, that would be one thing. And if I were continuing my way up the pay scale but had to deal with asinine mandates, that would be one thing. But having to comply with asinine mandates AND watching my income, in the form of real dollars, decline every year? When I have the choice to teach where I will be better compensated and all educational decisions will be made by experienced educators? And I will be treated with respect? Bring it on.
So as of today, I have officially resigned from my district, effective August 31st, which is when I will start my new job as a middle school math teacher at an independent school. I am looking forward to being treated like a professional, instead of a child, and I’m pretty sure I will never hear the words, “We can’t afford to give you a raise,” or worse (as in the past two years), “You’re going to have to take a pay cut.” I am looking forward to not having to spend hundreds and hundreds of my own money on classroom supplies. And the free lunch, catered by a local upscale market, will be pretty sweet, too.
I will miss my colleagues more than you could ever know, especially my math girls and my Green Hall buddies. It really breaks my heart to leave such a wonderful group of people. In fact, it’s devastating. But I have to do what’s best for me in the long run, and the thought of making more money and teaching classes of 15 instead of 34, and especially not having to deal with all the nonsense, was too much to refuse.
I will always be there to fight for public education. I just can’t teach in it.