This past school year, for the first time in 38 years, my father didn’t step inside a classroom. On the last day of the previous school year, he was laid off.
A victim of Michigan’s new “right to work” law, my dad didn’t even get advance warning so he could tell his students. It was a sad day, but not just for him: Although his school district may save some money, the community will lose in the long run.
School districts are hurting for cash, especially in Michigan, where the state budget has allocated less money for schools. Because Michigan is right-to-work, tenured teachers with bigger paychecks are more easily let go.
My father didn’t get into teaching for the paycheck. Because he taught industrial arts, he didn’t have to worry much about state testing. But he always did what he was asked — and went above and beyond, even though he always said: “I’m just a shop teacher.”
He was much more. When an exchange program from Russia came to Monroe County, he offered to chaperone a field trip. He was asked whether he would like to go to Russia with his students. He jumped at the chance, and still tells stories about his unforgettable trip.
When his school district needed someone to teach a business class, my dad volunteered, even though he had no formal background in the subject. It became one of his favorite classes. He entered students in The Blade’s stock market contest and placed teams among the top three.
Although my dad is a self-described moderate who says he doesn’t discuss politics, he was for years the chief negotiator for the Michigan Education Association local in his district. In the end, the state right-to-work law stripped the union of the power that could have saved his job.
If Michigan were still a union state, my dad might still be teaching. But I heard him say before this ordeal that if the younger industrial arts teacher in his district had been threatened with a layoff, my dad would have retired instead. That’s his only solace: The other teacher has continued to teach — after my father showed him the ropes.
Because industrial arts aren’t an “essential” subject (according to state of Michigan standards), his entire department could have disappeared. In the end, my dad felt it was important that his district should continue to teach industrial arts.
As the United States continues to fall in worldwide educational rankings, schools are treated more like businesses and students more like commodities. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, our nation has dropped 10 spots in worldwide high school graduation rates.
Yet school administrators and politicians, in Michigan and across the country, are more concerned with test scores. We don’t teach our students how to think, but rather how to pass a test.
Even after he got his layoff notice, ending his teaching career, my dad returned to his school the next day to clean his classroom. Otherwise, there were no parties, no fuss — exactly the way he wanted it.
Still he touched countless lives during his almost four decades of teaching. His legacy lives on through his students. Each time I’m with him in town, he runs into former students who express their gratitude and tell him he was one of the best teachers they ever had. Or more lately, they express their dismay about his job loss.
Not bad for “just a shop teacher.”
Jason L. Miller, a Toledo native, is director of campaigns and development for the Franciscan Action Network in Washington.