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.
“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.