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Q&A: Michigan Teacher of the Year advocates for mental health, retention resources

Nanette Hanson had returned home from a day of teaching May 24 when she first heard the news of the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen children and two teachers had died.

As an elementary teacher herself, leading a first-grade class in Lemmer Elementary in Escanaba, in the Upper Peninsula, reports of another school shooting left her shaken and “so deeply saddened.” 

Nanette Hanson
Nanette Hanson usually spends her days in the classroom, but she’ll be working with the Michigan Department of Education next year to advocate on teachers behalf on a statewide scale next year. (Photo courtesy of The Michigan Department of Education)

“I was just sad and so deeply saddened that we're still at this point where these horrendous things can be taking place,” she told Bridge Michigan. “You just wonder, ‘how are we going to address mental health in a more positive way, so that we can stop these things from happening?’” 

Related:

In her role as Michigan’s Teacher of the Year, Hanson will be a non-voting member of the State Board of Education. She plans to advocate for mental health resources in schools, with the hope those resources could help prevent future school shootings. 

Hanson will be entering her 26th year of teaching this fall. She’ll be spending more time away from the classroom to advocate for teachers state-wide. 

Bridge spoke to Hanson recently by phone from her school, after students had left on one of the last days of the school year. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Why did you become a teacher? 

I always knew I was going to become a teacher. I love learning, I love going to school. I had some great teachers growing up — teachers who were passionate about their job and you could just sense it about them. It made me love going to their class because they were so into what they were teaching, and coupled with the fact that they forged a relationship with me. They cared about me and they made sure that I knew that I was cared about and that I was important. And I thought, Man, this is what I want to do for somebody else.

What’s it like working with students in such a formative time of their lives? 

I like to tell everybody “first grade is the best grade,” but I'm sure a kindergarten teacher would disagree with me. But it's so rewarding as a first-grade teacher because I get to teach kids how to read. Some may not even know their alphabet sounds or their alphabet letters … and we plug away all year teaching them things and they're learning things. And when they just get that “Aha moment” and it clicks for them. It's super rewarding as a teacher because then you're like, “This is why I do it, because now I've sparked this love of learning in them.” 

First grade is critical …  you want to make sure that they love coming to school, that it's fun and exciting and they know that they're safe. You want to ignite that spark in them that they love to learn. That will carry them on their way through the rest of school.

Following the pandemic, what was the return to in-person learning like? 

I was happy to come back, because at least I could get my eyes on kids every day. And I knew personally that they were safe within my classroom. I knew that they were getting breakfast and lunch, those little things that people don't think about. You want your kids to be safe and know that they're okay — that was good for me. But it was also very stressful because we were doing some online streaming, and I signed up to do all of it. I was in person and online and I kind of did all of the jobs in that. So that was stressful. But it was still rewarding to make sure that I could see everybody and teach them again, in a way that I knew was meaningful, for them and for me.

How do you deal with stress when in situations like that? 

As teachers, most of us have our own families and our own lives to remember that we have to attend to them too. And so I tried to — tried is the keyword here — I tried to remember to set boundaries. When we were in the midst of the pandemic and parents didn't know what was going on, I made myself available almost 24/7. I was answering texts at 12 at night, just to ease parents’ minds. So, now that we're fully back and we're not in any online, I am setting boundaries where like at seven o'clock, I don't respond to parents, you know, questions online and I really make sure that I'm out taking walks with my husband and and taking bike rides and walking our dog and all of that so that I can balance life and work.

Did you see kids experiencing learning loss after going through virtual learning?  

I haven't seen a huge gap. I think there are a couple of things that kids might have missed, and especially if they were truants or something like that, but I think our district did a fine job … of trying to get every single family up and running with technology and a hotspot and we tried to make sure that there wasn't any gaps in people's learning. We were trying to stay on top of that and make sure that we were really cognizant of kids that weren't coming online.

Can you talk about policies you want to advocate for when you work with the Department of Education

I'm going to be advocating for mental health for students and staff. I definitely think that those are things that are very important to me. And you know, in light of the recent school shootings, I think that we really need to circle back to safety for all stakeholders in the school system. And I also want to really talk about how we can retain and recruit really highly diverse and high quality teachers. 

How can Michigan recruit and retain teachers?

I think that we need to do things a little earlier to recruit prospective teachers. For example, let's do more job shadowing in high school. Let's let some of those people that think they might want to be going into education … see a highly qualified teacher, someone who's passionate about their job, someone who is excited about their work. 

You have to get in here and see the difference you can make as a teacher. I think job shadowing, recruiting people that are highly qualified and diverse. By getting the respect back to the profession. Let's pay teachers what they deserve, to be a living wage that they can support their family and let people know that they're going to be valued in this profession.

What kind of mental health efforts do you want implemented in schools? 

I think that we just need more supports in place to support kids' needs. For example, can we have more social work support? We have a retired police officer here who works in our school that is also a support staff for our needy kids. After the pandemic, we've had the most support in our school district …  but I think that we need that everywhere. We're lucky we are wonderfully supported here, but not every school has that, and we need to see more support throughout the building. And then after the building, of course, the community at large needs to be fiscally supported so that our families can get what they need.

Do you think schools are doing enough to keep kids safe?  

I feel like I can only speak from my school; we have supports in place where we have done active shooter drills; and just the staff for professional development, we have special locks that hook into the floor and into our doors; we teach with our door shut; we have a key-in system at the front door. This is an elementary school, so we have all of those supports in place. But other schools don't have those supports in place and we sort of need to have — and especially for the older kids — we need to have supports in place at the schools level that can detect things that might be in backpacks or something like that. I'm not really sure what the answer is, but I do know we need to do something that is more than we are doing now to keep our kids safe.

What are the biggest public misconceptions about teachers? 

People have lost respect for the profession, and I don't know why or when — I can't pinpoint it. Over time, I think people have almost lost the respect for teachers' opinions and their schooling. I think that we need to bring back respect for the profession and we need to make sure that people know that our job is very important. 

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I think that the public feels like they know what we do in a day, .. but (it) is not just presenting a lesson. It's being a family member to children, being a nurse, a social worker, all of these things. We establish relationships that are lasting, a safe place for kids to learn and to know that it's okay to make mistakes and grow and we're teaching them manners and how to be good citizens.

What’s the worst part of being a teacher? 

I think the worst part might be that … people don't understand what goes on truly in the classroom. And the lack of support, how it makes our job so much harder. Without the support from the community at large, and fiscally, without that support, that makes our job hard. But … I don't think I don't think of my job as a job. It's a passion. It's a calling for me. I just knew that I was meant to do this and make a difference in kids' lives.

What’s the best part of being a teacher? 

The best part is just the rewards that you get every day, forging relationships, knowing that you're making a difference. You make a difference every single day, you can make a kid smile, and make them turn their whole day around just by showing them that you love them and care about them, and that they're important, and that they're going to make a difference someday in the world.

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