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Q&A: Michigan Teacher of the Year fears ‘mass exodus’ of instructors

Kelley Cusmano headshot
Kelley Cusmano, an English teacher at Rochester High School, was recently named Michigan’s 2024 Teacher of the Year
  • Kelley Cusmano is Michigan’s 2024 Teacher of the Year
  • The Rochester High School English teacher said the pressure placed on educators today leads too many good teachers to leave the profession. 
  • She hopes to advocate for teacher retention.

Kelley Cusmano says she’s always had the heart of a teacher. 

The daughter of a preschool teacher, Cusmano split her time as a child between the woods in her hometown near Jackson, and her mother’s classroom.

Today, Cusmano, now an English teacher at Rochester High School, focuses on that same importance as she advocates for retaining teachers. As teachers retire, Michigan is losing 10,000 teachers a year. Only 5,000 teachers per year enter the field in the state, according to a study by the University of Michigan’s School of Education. 


“We need to ensure that the collective wisdom of that group is not lost and is valued in the workforce,” Cusmano told Bridge Michigan.


Cusmano has a bachelor and master degree from Michigan State University and has taught for 19 years. She was first selected from a pool of 700 nominees as one of Michigan’s 10 Regional Teachers of the Year in April. Cusmano emerged with the award following a series of interviews.

As Michigan’s Teacher of the Year, Cusmano will hold a non-voting seat at the State Board of Education meetings each month. She hopes to use this seat to advocate for retaining teachers and increasing funding to schools.

Bridge spoke to Cusmano via email after the bell rang to dismiss students for the last time this school year. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me a little bit about your background.

I grew up alongside my twin sister Sarah in a rural area of Jackson County, outside of Spring Arbor. My mom began a teaching career as a Head Start preschool teacher in Concord, while my dad worked as the Jackson County Parks manager. We lived on 5 acres of woods with a dog named Molly! I loved growing up in my small, working-class town and really have given my upbringing a lot of credit for my work ethic and sense of community.

What is your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part of my job is definitely the relationships. Between kids, my colleagues and the parents, I feel like I am able to connect with people in a positive way every single day. I feel like few other careers provide that kind of value. I also love that each day of teaching brings endless possibilities.

What policies do you hope to advocate for when working with the Department of Education?

There are two major policies. One, is the importance of retaining teachers in the classroom. I feel like Michigan has added many policies directed at teacher recruitment, but there has not been a lot of work at the state level for retaining the teachers we have. 

I feel there is going to be a mass exodus of teachers in the next few years due to the pressures of the education system …  

How have you seen education change since becoming a teacher?

The funny thing is that I really believe that kids are still kids even after almost 20 years in the classroom. They still want to be successful, productive adults, and they still want adults to love and support them. So, in my head it isn’t that I have seen education change, it’s more that I have seen the narrative surrounding education change. 

In the past, if someone had an issue with something at school, they would come in and talk with the teacher and then the administration. 

Now, it seems like the first thing people do is amplify an issue on social media without including the school or teacher. I think that has caused a breakdown in trust, and it can be hard for everyone to communicate with each other. I also think that many more people are paying attention to education, which is a positive thing as long as they are hearing the facts.


What is the hardest part of being a teacher?

Always feeling like we are never good enough. I always take it personally when a student doesn’t live up to their potential. Also, some days I may feel like students just “get it” and other days where I feel like they don’t. Those brick-wall days can be tough because I have to go back and think, “OK, what did I do? And how can I do it better?”

What has brought you to success?

It sounds cliché, but believing in the competency of the students. I truly believe that every child has the capacity to be an amazing, successful adult and that drives me to have high expectations and beliefs in the students I serve.

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