Jake Gless worked for Lakewood Public Schools as a middle-school art teacher for about two years and six weeks before he took down the rainbow flag that was hanging on the wall of his classroom, packed his boxes of paints and papers and never walked foot into the school building again.
It wasn’t because he wanted to leave six weeks into the last school year. He loved teaching.
But Gless, 42, felt pushed out by an unsupportive administration that accused him of retaliating against students by hanging up the LGBTQ+ Pride flag after some in his art class ripped up a younger student’s rainbow-themed art project. Afterward, Gless said students also threatened to tear down and burn the rainbow flag he hung behind his desk above books about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
“‘I don’t think this community wants me here,’” Gless recalled telling his principal, Lauren Christensen, after an especially contentious week in his classroom. “And I really felt that way. And it was something I was chewing over.”
Education advocates and leaders have been trying for years to find an answer to Michigan’s crippling educator shortage as more teachers like Gless depart the classroom.
Despite the state allocating more and more money into teacher retention and attraction, harassment, change of emotional climate in schools and politicization of K-12 school curricula has been driving teachers to leave the profession the last few years.
The Michigan Education Association (MEA) surveyed 2,600 educators statewide last school year and found that one in five teachers expected to leave education for another career within three years, an increase of 9% since August. Another 14% reported they plan to retire.
Michigan isn’t alone in trying to fill empty classrooms filled with students.
In March, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated 44% of public schools reported teaching vacancies at the start of this year, with more than half of those vacancies due to resignations.
According to a recent study by a Santa Moncia, Calif.-based, Rand Corp., a nonprofit global policy think tank, nearly a quarter (24%) of K-12 teachers surveyed earlier this year said their school or district leaders asked them to avoid teaching about social or political issues.
Tensions during the pandemic
Gless started teaching at Lakewood Middle School in 2019, just two years after completing his education degree.
When he first took the job, Gless said there were some issues — namely the confederate flags sported by students on their clothing or through their artwork — about the “incredibly rural” community, but things worsened quickly once the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.
Lakewood Public Schools is in Woodland, a small agricultural town in Barry County that also serves as a bedroom community to the Lansing and Grand Rapids areas.
At the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, Gless assigned a project to his fifth-grade students to create anti-bullying signs on index cards. A student project, which had a rainbow background painted on, was placed on Gless’ display board.
But after the school district put in place a mask mandate a few weeks into the school year, students began to retaliate in protest against the school. And the fifth-grader’s rainbow anti-bullying sign was the first target of harassment in Gless’ classroom.
“I started noticing that it would get turned upside down or turned backward. … And then I realized that was happening on purpose because somebody in my classes didn’t like it because it looked like a Pride flag,” Gless said. “And the week that the kids went on their protest against the mask mandate that my administrators weren’t enforcing, I noticed that the card got torn up and was shredded on the floor.”
In response, Gless ordered a full-size flag to hang in his classroom that couldn’t be destroyed by angry students. He hung the flag on Friday and by Monday, he said he was being called homophobic slurs by the students.
The district did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations made by Gless.
“I wanted to make it clear that this is an inclusive room where we tolerate everybody. If there’s any place where kids should feel comfortable, it’s in art class.”
Undoubtedly, the isolation, fear and grief of the pandemic took a toll on everyone, but it was also a hyper-political time that hit schools hard.
There are a few overarching issues that have politicized the classroom: policies for implementing COVID-19 safety measures in schools and classroom conversations about race, racism, LGBTQ+ identities or bias.
Michigan is no stranger to hot-button cultural issues being the center of protests and violence at school board meetings. School board members, teachers, support staff and school administrators in Michigan have been subjected to an increase of insults and threats during the pandemic.
Republican lawmakers and local officials have, for the most part, opposed masks in schools and have increasingly taken aim at schools over teaching about race and LGBTQ+ issues, introducing bills to ban certain practices.
Educators and education advocates who want to expand curricula to include more LGBTQ+ representation and education have been targeted by far-right groups, like Mom for Liberty, as “groomers.”
The Moms for Liberty Livingston County chapter made multiple Facebook posts making these claims, but those posts have either been deleted or made private. Brooke Chapel, a member of Livingston County chapter, also posted a video on social media baselessly claiming that some Hartland Consolidated Schools teachers and substitutes are “groomers” because of their support for LGBTQ+ students.
Nationwide, 37% of teachers and 61% of principals reported being harassed because of their school’s policies on COVID-19 safety measures or for teaching about race, racism or bias during the first half of the 2021–22 school year.
“Too many politicians … stoke grievances rather than solve problems. They should be helping us help our kids and our communities, not making it harder with their culture wars and division,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in July during an address to the national teachers’ union. “Here’s how I see it: This moment can be viewed through the lens of fear or hope; despair or aspiration; self-interest or the greater good. The members of this union definitively, defiantly and undeniably choose hope, aspiration and the greater good.”
The RAND study also found that educators who reported being harassed about politicized issues had worse perceptions of their school or district climate and were more likely to cite the politicization of their profession as a reason to think about leaving the profession.
“I wanted to make it clear that this is an inclusive room where we tolerate everybody,” Gless said. “If there’s any place where kids should feel comfortable, it’s in art class.”
Throughout that first day when the Pride flag hung from the wall, Gless said multiple students walked out of the room to report the flag to the principal.
Gless didn’t want to start a conversation about the flag, but the students brought one on, he recalled. One of the seventh-grade boys in his classroom asked Gless what would happen if he tore down the flag. Gless said he didn’t know. Another chimed in and asked what would happen if he threw paint all over the flag. Gless said he didn’t know. He remembered a third student who asked what would happen if he burnt the flag down. Again, Gless said he didn’t know.
After school that day, Christensen walked into the classroom and asked Gless about the flag. After a short conversation, Gless asked if he needed to remove the Pride flag.
“She just looked at me and said, ‘Whatever it takes.’ So as soon as she left, I called my dad … and we spent six hours packing up my stuff and I was gone the next day,” Gless said.
While low salaries have been one of the most historic challenges to keep qualified teachers in the classroom, hateful rhetoric spewed at educators has presented a new challenge.
“I felt like I couldn’t be there anymore, and I felt like it was a decision beyond my control,” Gless said. “It felt like something that happened to me.”
Funding for new teachers
Kara Clayton, a media studies educator at the South Redford School District in Southeast Michigan, is ending her career as a teacher after 28 years. Despite being a “young 59 years old,” as she describes herself, Clayton said the environment in the school district she has loved for nearly thirty years has changed too drastically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think had the last several years not been so tough, I would have stayed,” Clayton said. “Before COVID, things were going great, as far as for me personally as an educator. I mean, nothing was ever perfect. I’m not going to say it was perfect. There’s always things happening with people trying to put their hands into education who think they know more about education than you do.”
Last school year, when students returned back to school for in-person learning, Clayton found herself as the “unintended victim” of classroom violence when a fight broke out and she was shoved by a student — which was something she said never used to happen in her classrooms and she believes is a product of emotional challenges students went through during the pandemic.
What Weingarten said schools need to get back to is the basics: promoting reading and career and technical education, addressing the teacher shortage and investing in school-based enrichment programs that support student success.
“While extremist politicians are trying to drive a wedge between parents and teachers by banning books, censoring curriculum and politicizing public education, we’re focused on investing in public schools and the essential knowledge and skills students need,” Weingarten said.
For Fiscal Year 2023, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican leaders in the Michigan Legislature settled on a budget that included more funds than ever to aid new teachers to join the field — and hopefully stay.
The budget includes funds for the MI Future Educator Fellowships, which pay up to $10,000 in tuition for 2,500 future Michigan educators, $9,600 stipends a semester for student teachers, $175 million Grow-Your-Own programs that help districts put support staff on no-cost paths to become educators, $20 million for Teach for America, $15 million for Troops to Teachers and $10 million for CTE Teacher recruitment and retention.
“We’re focused on accelerating learning, not just catching up,” Weingarten said. “We are fighting for the conditions students need to thrive, like state-of-the-art buildings, with good ventilation, smaller class sizes and mental health resources.”
What’s the fuss about?
The reasons why some parents and students have lashed out at teachers and administrators vary district by district.
But the common denominators over the last three school years have been mask mandates, school closures due to COVID-19, LGBTQ+-related curriculums or resources, social and emotional learning (SEL) and critical race theory, a college-level theory that examines the systemic effects of white supremacy in America and has been misrepresented by far-right opponents.
In some ways, the 2022-23 school year is different from the other COVID-impacted school years. While every public school in the state is offering in-person learning, as they did last year, this time mask mandates in schools are largely a thing of the past.
As of now, many educators say the fight over COVID-19 protocols seems to be quieting down in most school districts.
However, despite there no longer being any statewide or county-wide COVID-19 mandates for schools, some GOP politicians aren’t dropping the fight that’s increased tensions in schools across Michigan.
In fact, it’s one of the top issues Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon campaigns on.
Dixon, who is endorsed by former U.S. Education Secretary and longtime charter school champion Betsy DeVos, will be up against Whitmer on Nov. 8.
The former right-wing commentator supports charter and private schools and backs the Let MI Kids Learn voucher-style initiative supported by DeVos. That measure aims to create the Student Opportunity Scholarship Program to pay tuition and fees in K-12 public or private schools, homeschooling materials and online learning programs for students with financial need and to make contributions to the program tax deductible.
In May, Dixon said education is her “No. 1” priority. This week, she held a press conference outside the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), the Republican said she supports banning some books, criticized LGBTQ+ topics in curricula and said she wants to prevent transgender athletes from competing on sports teams that align with their gender identity.
“Education is the foundation. So if our students are thriving and our parents are involved in schools, then we have a good workforce going forward,” said Dixon, who lives in Muskegon County and sends her four children to a private school. “I think it’s so important for mom and dad to know what’s going on with their kids.”
On Tuesday, Dixon said at the press conference she hasn’t considered where she will send her children if she is elected as governor and has to move to Lansing.
“I’m leaving because I’m just tired. I’m tired. I just don’t have it in me anymore. I guess the COVID situation took me to a point where I’m just so tired. I can’t make it fun anymore. And so it’s time for somebody else who can make it fun.”
Whitmer has also been campaigning on education, but has been focusing on keeping kids safe, improving public school funding and touting the state’s largest education budget that was passed this summer with bipartisan support. Her children went to public schools.
“Every parent wants their kid to feel safe and supported in school, have access to the best on-campus resources and facilities and learn from the best educators,” Whitmer said in a statement after the state budget was passed. “As a mom, I know what this budget means for parents who want the best for their kids. It is proof of what we can do when we put students first and stay focused on getting things done.”
As educators return to a new school year, one where the fights over mask mandates and school closures have waned, many are calling on leaders to end the divisiveness that has damaged trust in schools and bring some unity back.
But for many teachers who spent decades in the classroom, it’s too late.
“I’m leaving because I’m just tired. I’m tired. I just don’t have it in me anymore. I guess the COVID situation took me to a point where I’m just so tired. I can’t make it fun anymore. And so it’s time for somebody else who can make it fun,” Clayton said.
Originally published Sept. 21 in Michigan Advance. It is republished with permission.