Retiring MEA President Paula Herbart optimistic about MI public schools' future
There have been a lot of changes in public education in the past few decades, and Paula Herbart has followed them closely.
Herbart started her career as a music teacher 31 years ago, and for the past six years she's been the president of the Michigan Education Association. The MEA is a union that represents approximately 120,000 teachers and staff members in the state from public schools to higher education.
Now, Paula Herbart is retiring and thinking about the state of education in Michigan. She spoke with Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou.
Doug Tribou: You started teaching in Fraser Public Schools in 1992. Your parents were both teachers. What have you loved most about your career in education?
Paula Herbart: The thing that I love most is just having an influence on people's lives that you didn't even know about. I had a student say to me recently she didn't have a lot of confidence, but that I always encouraged her to keep on going to just try her best. You know, in music and in politics, if you don't want to be told "no," you probably shouldn't try anything because no is more often the answer than yes. You have to have a kind of thick skin, but a soft heart in order to accomplish things in these arenas.
DT: In a piece published this month in The Detroit News' "Labor Voices" column, you wrote that your greatest day in education was your first day as a teacher because you were starting your dream job. But in that column, you also wrote that June 28 of this year was the second best day. Why was that?
"I wanted to make sure that I left MEA members and students in a better place than I found it when I became president. I was a local [union chapter] president during the times of financial austerity for public education. They were tough times to bargain."Paula Herbart, outgoing MEA president
PH: I wanted to make sure that I left MEA members and students in a better place than I found it when I became president. I was a local [union chapter] president during the times of financial austerity for public education. They were tough times to bargain. They were tough times to help educators who were struggling to decide whether or not they stay in teaching because of the [Governor Rick] Snyder years where our budgets were cut drastically.
And I was so proud, on June 28, to not only have the highest single percentage rate increase to the school aid fund that Michigan had ever seen — 5% — and then to have also our bargaining rights returned to give us a level playing field in the decisions that are being made for children and educators across the state. To have those rights reinstated was incredibly powerful. We've got to make sure educators' voices are at the table all the time. Ask an educator and you'll be sure to do what's best for children.
DT: Part of what you're talking about there is separate legislation, separate from the budget, about restoring some bargaining rights. Could you just explain a little bit more for people who might not understand what's coming back under that legislation?
PH: Sure. What's coming back is having educators have a say-so in what [a performance] evaluation looks like for them, being able to bargain over insurance, return dates... Be a part of that conversation on whether [teachers] move [grade levels] or whether the curriculum best suits the needs of students.
Now, lots of school districts have engaged in those kinds of conversations with their employees, and I don't mean to say that they haven't. But they haven't been made to do that.
DT: Michigan, like other states, has a teacher shortage, and the new state budget has millions of dollars for student teacher stipends, a one-time student loan repayment pilot program for some school employees, money for mentoring new teachers. How optimistic are you about those programs and other efforts to get more teachers into the pipeline?
PH: I'm very optimistic about it, particularly the paid student teaching. One of the things that we have heard from people in colleges of education is how cost prohibitive becoming an educator is. For a whole semester or a whole year, you pay money for tuition in order to be a student teacher. And then they ask you to quit your jobs because you're doing "a pre-student teaching" or an apprenticeship with a teacher, and that should be your job. These proposed programs within this budget will really help those students who want to do it, but are thinking, "I can't make a living at it."
My niece was hired two years ago in her first job, making only $10,000 more than I made when I started my job in 1992. That's criminal.
"If we can still look at public schools and the schools in our neighborhoods as being hubs of community access and community engagement, that can only help to ensure that our public schools are able to do everything that they can to give students everything that they need to be successful."Paula Herbart, two-term MEA president
DT: Do you think that there are other factors that are keeping people out of that pipeline of teachers that would help fill the shortage?
PH: I do. And I think being allowed to bargain over your professional agency really is one of them. There was so much top-down happening to educators that they felt micromanaged in their classrooms.
So many demands — standardized testing, teaching to the test. I don't think that educators necessarily do that specifically, but what they did do was prepare students to take standardized tests that become meaningless when it comes to a student's actual aptitude.
DT: But the testing really hasn't changed. There's still a ton of standardized testing.
PH: There is. But the fact that standardized testing impacts an educator's performance [evaluation] and actually says that a teacher is doing or not doing a good job, that has been minimalized, which is good.
DT: You and I last spoke in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was just around the time when Governor Whitmer was urging schools to return to in-person learning. It will take a lot more time before we have a full picture of the effects of the pandemic, but what do you see as the biggest fallout so far from COVID-19 in Michigan's schools?
PH: Well, I think the learning that needs to be caught up on will impact a generation of students. Because there wasn't a learning loss, there was learning delay. And the catch up is going to be hard. They're going to need help in navigating this brave new world post-pandemic. And I'm grateful that the governor has invested in public education and in support services across the state.
DT: I have one last question for you, Paula. I moved to Michigan about eight years ago, and have been at Michigan Radio for about seven years. And over the years, we've reported on a lot of different voices in the state, leaders talking about this goal of making Michigan a top ten state for education. And that hasn't happened yet. Do you see a path to getting there?
PH: I do see a path in that kind of improvement, but it will take more than just public educators and public schools to do it. It's going to take all of us in community with one another.
If we can still look at public schools and the schools in our neighborhoods as being hubs of community access and community engagement, that can only help to ensure that our public schools are able to do everything that they can to give students everything that they need to be successful.
Editor's note: Some quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.