Michigan Teacher of the Year: Bring teachers into reform talks

Cara Lougheed is Michigan’s new Teacher of the Year. (Bridge photo by Magdalena Mihaylova)

Cara Lougheed loves to teach.

She loves her students.

What she doesn’t love is how little she says the teaching profession is valued by some people. It’s a concern widely shared by colleagues. Three out of four Michigan educators in a recent survey said they wouldn’t recommend the profession to others, citing external factors such as lack of support, policy obstacles, or overwhelming workloads.

Related: Michigan teachers: Standardized tests are useless and classes are too big

“I would love to see that more people feel like they can encourage young people to go into the profession, that it's safe to do so financially, emotionally, all of it,” said Lougheed, Michigan’s 2019 Teacher of the Year. “Teachers love students – we love them. We care about how they're doing, not just in class, but outside of school. And you don't go into a profession like this – and then stay in it for 20 years – if you don't really love and care about kids.”

Lougheed is an English and history teacher at Stoney Creek High School in Rochester Hills, where she has taught since the school opened in 2001. The walls around her desk are adorned with posters of Wonder Woman. A sign on her desk reads, “I teach - what’s your superpower?”

She holds deep pride for her school, citing its “all means all” slogan, which encourages diversity and inclusion, and its dedication to building “culture and community.”

“We work every day to make sure that our kids know that they are cared for and loved and protected no matter who they are,” Lougheed said. “We do it because that's what we do. Because we care.”

For the 2019-2020 school year, Lougheed will reduce her time in the classroom and serve as a voice for more than 90,000 Michigan teachers. She will attend State Board of Education meetings as a non-voting member, and visit schools across the state.

Lougheed said she knows how hard teaching can be, but she also knows of the overwhelming payoff.

“The most rewarding thing is getting through to kids, building those relationships, and helping kids see their potential when they don't see it in themselves,” Lougheed said. “Especially in my last 10 years, I have paid a lot more attention to young girls – helping them see that they can have an opinion.”

It is for that reason that Lougheed hopes while holding the role of Teacher of the Year to “elevate the teaching profession” so that it is again a career young people want to pursue.

“Young people coming into the profession need good mentorship from veterans. If we can improve that, then I think that teaching becomes not as daunting.”

Lougheed said she believes teacher compensation directly impacts the classroom, a sentiment broadly shared by Michigan’s new Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is pushing for increased education funding in budget talks with the Legislature.

“I think sometimes people get confused and think that if a teacher or a district is saying, ‘Oh, we need a raise…’ that it's somehow separate from kids,” Lougheed said. “But I think that when employees are valued, they're better for their kids. So when teachers are valued, they can do better work for students.”

When policymakers discuss education reform, teachers should be at the table, Lougheed said.

“We want our schools to be the best they can be. And we have ideas,” Lougheed said. “So really, just invite us to the table, just open the door (a) crack,” she said.

Lougheed discussed a few more education issues facing Michigan teachers:  

Bridge: Michigan has a new third-grade reading retention law set to be implemented in the fall of this year. What are the sentiments in your community regarding this law, and what are your thoughts on it?

Lougheed: What I hear from people from across the state is if you're going to hold kids back, who's going to teach them? Do we have enough money for them? Do we need reading specialists? And do we have the money for that? I understand the idea of wanting kids to be proficient in reading, obviously, but we don't want them to get behind. We also have to fund it; you have to make sure that districts are not just left to figure it out on their own. Because that's not fair to anybody.

Bridge: The Michigan legislature adopted an “A through F” grading system in 2018 to hold public schools accountable for student performance and achievement. Do you see value in a system like this? Would it be effective, or is there a different and more equitable way to measure a school’s success?

Lougheed: Any time you put a letter or number grade on something, I get a little suspicious or skeptical as to what it means. I don't really know what they're based on a lot of times, but it just feels a little punitive to put letter grades on schools, because you're comparing schools that are different and districts that are different and that are all trying to do different things.

Bridge: Do you have any other ideas of how they could measure it?

Lougheed: It's hard, because I know parents want to know when they’re moving into a district: What kind of school is this? What kind of district is this? – I get that. And it's really hard to quantify that on paper. You need to go visit the school, so you can get a sense of what it's like, so you can look at the hallways and talk to a couple of teachers and see what the kids are doing. I know that's not always an easy thing to do. But if you really want to get a sense of a school, you have to do more than just look at it on paper. Just like with a human being.

Bridge: There are a lot of headlines about Michigan schools underperforming – from state test proficiencies, to NAEP cross-state rankings and student success in college. Are these grim headlines an accurate reflection of success or failure in Michigan classrooms, and of Michigan students?

Lougheed: As a classroom teacher who gives assessments, I would caution against judging an entire school or even a student on one assessment, or even just a few measures. You know, there's a lot of moving parts in a school district, just like there's a lot to a kid taking a test.

I know I'm doing the best I can and I'm constantly trying to be better. I know that the people that I work with are constantly trying to be better. I work with amazing people, the teachers I encounter online, at conferences, they're good people and they're doing their best work.

I think if you ask people how public education is doing in total, they might have a more negative or low number, but if you ask them how education is in their local neighborhood, they're always prone to say, “Oh, it's great. We love our teachers!” So I'm always a little cautious of rating systems.

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Debbie Rosenman
Fri, 06/21/2019 - 8:43am

Thanks for representing the teachers across Michigan! Be our voice.

Dana Getsinger
Fri, 06/21/2019 - 9:23am

Congratulations, Cara! I am so glad you are out there representing teachers! Sam

Chuck Fellows
Fri, 06/21/2019 - 2:02pm

A teacher on the state board should have a vote. The State Board, legislature, pols and pundits should shut up and listen to teachers, really listen. Unfortunately they do not know how. They always sound like the father that whines that he doesn't understand his kids since they won't listen. Standardized testing is meaningless since data (scores) absent context provides zero information upon which to improve the system of education. Third grade reading targets are just stupid. Biology and cognitive development to not march to an accountant's calendar. NAEP scores are not to be used for ranking and rating according to the NAEP.

Sun, 06/23/2019 - 10:30am

All we hear is how terrible testing is from you and other educators. How would you propose educational progress and attainment be measured? Or are you against this conceptin general?

Mitchell Robinson
Fri, 06/21/2019 - 3:02pm

So good to see a Teacher of the Year who has a clear understanding of the big issues in education, and has such reasonable responses to these sorts of questions. Best of luck to Ms. Lougheed as she fulfills her duties as TOTY, and represents the state's teachers--who are doing heroic work under very difficult conditions.

Sun, 06/23/2019 - 10:41am

Congratulations, it is always good to see success recognize.
This also gives us a rare opportunity to learn from success.
Ms. Lougheed can you help us learn some of the things that you have seen students, parents/grandparents, and people that no longer have kids in school do to help students learn and succeed academically?
What are the steps in the learning process that the students need to do and have you seen any particular actions or activities they practice that other students might try? Are there any key things that parents can do to help you and students succeed? Are there any ways that people without kids in school can help current students learn and enhance their desire earn?

Thu, 06/27/2019 - 2:33pm

Another lost opportunity, no one even offered a link so others learn.

This kind of silence reinforces the perception that education 'experts' just don't want any none 'professionals' participation/support.

Al Churchill
Sun, 06/23/2019 - 10:51pm

Ditto Chuck Fellows. Beyond that, reformers, with their standardized test and other nonsense, have essentially tried to put kids on a business like production line, turn the dial a couple of clicks and expect to kids , joyfully, score higher. It doesn't work that way with human beings. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, measured the same thing as Common Core and other standardized tests and could have been utilized in place of the billions and billions of dollars spent on meaningless test developers.
For what it's worth the NEAP, created by the federal government, has shown over the past ten years, the proof of the pudding for reform, that scores have not advanced one iota. In math, scores have gone down a bit. Anybody seriously still want to push what passes for reform?
But then teachers have always implement other tests in their classrooms that made the current standardized tests unnecessary.
This writer went to high school in the middle 50s. The teachers were given primary responsibility for student development at that time. We had the most vibrant economy and strongest military in the world at that time. American schools and the teachers in them can take a disproportinate amout of credit nfor that being the case.
In closing, let it be known that our current schools never were failing. If, indeed, there areas that a lot of attention, when you factor in poverty and parent involvement, our schools do as well as Finland and other leaders in international tests. Put teachers back in charge, wgere they belong.