When Mayowa Reynolds was chosen earlier this month as a nominee for Teacher of the Year, an exceptional honor which earned her a trip to the White House along with three other Michigan nominees, she thought it was nice and was glad she had been chosen. Still, Reynolds couldn’t help but think about all the turmoil back home in Detroit where she and her fellow teachers were engaged in a bitter protest against Detroit Public Schools that had resulted in the widely reported ‘sickout’ that closed down 94 of 97 DPS schools for several days. The action was sparked by an emailed communication sent to DPS teachers from the office of DPS Emergency Manager Judge Steven Rhodes saying that they should not expect to be paid beyond June. The payment issue has since been resolved, but the anger of the teachers – and of many students and parents who side with them – has not.
“Speaking as an educator and as a parent, on the Saturday before the lockout, we received an email indicating that the district would run out of money in June and that we would not be paid after June. …But the money we were supposed to get paid is money we’ve loaned the district,” said Reynolds.
To further explain the issue from the teachers’ point of view, Reynolds, who teaches dance at Cass Tech and also serves as an assistant pastor at Fellowship Chapel, made an analogy: “We say, ‘Here, hold this for me. Like if I get paid $1,000, so I keep $500 and give you the other $500. That’s what we’ve been doing. So to us that was an absurdity [not getting paid]. So we responded by going to the Fischer Building where the person was who sent the email. We went to Rhodes’ office. We didn’t go to Lansing. And I think he was trying to manipulate us, honestly. He was trying to manipulate the teachers to fight for the legislation, but the reality is the teachers were so angry because either that money is missing, and it’s been stolen, or someone’s not telling the truth.
“For him to send us that letter, and for us not to respond, didn’t even make sense.”
It has been this willingness on the part of so many Detroit teachers and their supporters to protest what is going on at DPS that has attracted the attention of teachers around the nation, said Reynolds.
“Everyone was focused on Detroit. They understood the impact of how Detroit will affect them. Many of the other teachers there are also working in states with Republican governors and can see the effects of more testing over classroom teaching. … I kept texting that back to the teachers here, because sometimes you can be fighting so hard that you don’t realize you have other folks rooting for you. …It made me understand the scope of the fight for quality public education.”
Reynolds emphasized that, in contrast to what critics have said who accuse the teachers of depriving DPS students of an education during their protest action, both the students and the parents are well aware of why the teachers are protesting.
“The kids are outraged because the kids know that the closest thing to me and my success is my parent and this teacher. They know teachers sacrifice their own money. They know what the teachers do. They know this. So the kids are out there, the parents are out there. We’re not doing this because we don’t have anything else to do. We would much rather be in the classroom.”
Earlier this year in January, Cass Tech students walked out of school in support of their teachers who were on sickout, protesting DPS conditions.
“It was because we’d done everything. We loaned the district $10,000. We have taken 10 percent pay cuts more than once, we’ve done so many things that wouldn’t be asked of anybody else that has to continually pay for their education to keep a job. It was almost like we had no other recourse,” she said.
In addition to her frustrations as a teacher, Reynolds, like other teachers, has a child who attends public school in Detroit. Her daughter attends Renaissance, and has had four history teachers in one year. This kind of instability is all too common. Reynolds recounted another situation at Renaissance where an advanced placement science teacher simply couldn’t take the instability of DPS anymore and quit before the school year ended, leaving students in the lurch. Then a retired science teacher who attends Fellowship Chapel, where Reynolds is a minister, found out about what happened and re-entered the school system specifically so the kids in that abandoned science class would not be left hanging and could complete their science studies.
“And that’s the real Detroit. That’s who we are.”