Needed in Genesee County and beyond: Passionate people who want to be teachers

FLINT, Michigan -- Kelsey Lowes discovered her talent for teaching early on. In particular, her passion for working with special needs people was developed right in her own home.

“I guess what initially inspired me was not so much teaching in general, but working with people who have special needs,” she said. “I have a sister who is on the autism spectrum. And so I always had a really good patience with people who have different abilities than others.”

Lowes, a Clarkston High School and Central Michigan graduate, also worked with special needs students while she was in high school and during summers as a camp counselor. She is wrapping up her first year as a teacher for the Genesee Intermediate School District, where she works with adult students in Genesee County with cognitive impairments at the Marion D. Crouse Instructional Center in Flushing. Nationwide, all teachers had to deal with dramatic shifts in building policies, instructional delivery, and other immense challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Lowes, that was in addition to the challenges that go along with being a first-year teacher.

“So I don't know if you're very familiar with internet humor, but I think of that meme with the dog and the fire, where he's just sitting there, like, this is fine,” Lowes said. “That's been this whole year. You know, you just gotta roll with the punches -- the policy changes, hearing the laws changing all the time, like everything is just constantly changing and we're constantly adapting. It's been crazy. One thing that I keep reminding myself and I've been told from other people is that if I can handle all the changes and craziness that I've had to go through this year, then every other year following is going to just feel like a breeze in comparison.”

Districts nationwide already had challenges finding enough quality teachers prior to the pandemic. With the added stress that this school year has put on teachers, that shortage is intensifying. Steve Tunnicliff, superintendent of the GISD, said that the pandemic did illuminate how vital the role played by teachers is to all parts of society and hopes it provides a chance for districts everywhere to recruit more people into the profession.

“We need to encourage people to enter this meaningful profession and highlight how important it is,” Tunnicliff said. “We have a lot of vacancies and fewer people going into education careers, that’s something we’re all dealing with across Genesee County, across the state, and across the country. It’s a very significant challenge we need to address moving forward. We have to build back up the teaching profession and public education in general because we know how critical it is.”

Part of the challenge in recruiting students into the profession is that teaching jobs aren’t typically as high-paying as other fields with similar post-secondary degree requirements. Teaching jobs are still mostly filled by women as well, and the gender pay gap in the United State still dramatically favors men. That also worsened during the pandemic, with women taking far greater economic and professional hits than men.

The increasingly politicized environment around public education also can add stress to the profession. Several states around the country, including Michigan, have legislators pushing laws that would restrict what elements of American history teachers can and cannot teach. Teachers were also unwittingly centered in political fights all year as school districts faced pressure to rapidly reopen and ditch mask mandates, in many cases sooner than public health guidelines advised. 

Despite those challenges, Annie McMahon Whitlock, associate professor of elementary education and education department chair at the University of Michigan-Flint points out that few professions offer more rewarding experiences than teaching. 

“I really do try to highlight (to prospective students) the fact that teaching is joyful,” Whitlock said. “I do this work because it is full of joy most of the time. You get to work with kids who keep you young and there's always things to be happy and smile and feel good about despite all of the challenges.”

Whitlock believes it is important to be transparent with potential students interested in teaching about those challenges in the industry, but to also be clear about how important the work is.

“I'm very real with my students about the challenges they'll face,” she said. “So it's not all joy and rainbows, but there's so much of that still. And I always tell them, this will never be a boring job. It’ll challenge you in new ways and that's great. That's why I love it. And that's why I do think a lot of people are still wanting to go into this profession. I am real with them about the money and the time. I tell them teaching is not going to make you a billionaire, but you will have fun almost every day.”

Whitlock said that most students who enter the field do so because of positive experiences they had with teachers, coaches, or mentors in their own lives. For Lowes, she has even had those types of formative experiences while she was student teaching and early in her career. Her host teacher as a student teacher entrusted her with a lot of responsibility immediately and let her figure things out as she went, which she says helped improve her confidence. And at GISD, she’s had a fellow teacher who has continuously checked in on her.

“This has just been the craziest year ever,” Lowes said. “She has been such a rock for me, showing me strategies to be a better teacher, here are things that you can do to be better in your classroom. She has really been a supporter of me taking care of myself, which helps me be the best teacher that I can for my students. She's really helped me find a balance of teaching versus my personal life and not letting the two overlap so much, because that can be really easy to do, especially in your first year of teaching.”

Teaching also does allow some flexibility to be creative working with students. Especially during the pandemic, teachers have had to find new ways to form connections with students in virtual environments. For Lowes, that has given her the chance to have even more dialogue with parents who are assisting virtual learners -- something she plans to keep doing in future years even in a more traditional setting.

“I have students who are learning remotely and students who are non-verbal, so I'm in constant contact with their parents,” Lowes said. “All of the contact has been coming through their parents and it's helped us build pretty strong relationships and has made the dialogue a lot better. So once those students do come back to school, I know it's going to be a pretty good transition because I've already got such a good rapport with their parents.”

The relationship-building and adapting to meet the needs of students even in a rapidly changing environment are important skills that Whitlock says translate well to education as a profession. 

“We really emphasize at UM-Flint the importance of putting your students first and foremost and building relationships with them,” Whitlock said. “We teach students, we don’t teach a curriculum. So it’s all about understanding the best way for them to understand the content you’re trying to teach them. You have to be a person who is ready to learn all of those things. We’re looking for people who are eager to learn and be lifelong learners and come into the profession knowing what you still have to learn.”

UM-Flint currently has programs for students pursuing bachelor’s and advanced degrees in education and educational leadership. Whitlock also notes that they’re working on options for people who already have bachelor’s degrees and potentially want to go back to school to become a certified teacher without doing another full four years. 

“It’s everyone's responsibility to increase the teacher pool,” she said. “We all want that.”

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.