After 31 Years of Teaching, It’s Tough to Walk Away

Mike Fillman has said goodbye to his last class of fifth-graders, but he will carry their names and faces with him wherever he goes.

Their names are here, scrawled all over a wooden table in the corner of his classroom at Lowell’s Murray Lake Elementary School. Bryce. Zach. Kylee. Mya. All are students he’s had who have written their names, along with messages like, “You rock, Mr. Fillman.”

“Throughout all the years, kids have just left me notes,” Fillman said in a choked-up voice. “That goes with me, without a doubt.”

So do the posters plastered on his walls, tattered photos of classes going back to 1990. On each poster is a phrase Fillman liked to use with that class, like “Solid as a rock,” “All the birds are in the nest!” and, for this year’s class, “The youth are leaving the elder!!!”

♥Fillman can tell you the names of most of these students, and their stories. Some are tragic. He pointed to a boy’s name written on the table, Alex, and a boy in a poster, Brett, both killed in auto accidents.

But then he pointed to the photo of another student, Chelsea Karas, who, inspired by his example, went on to become a teacher. She married David Sefton, who is standing two rows behind her in the poster. Fillman went to their wedding. 

Such are the rewards and heartaches of teaching children year after year, until the day comes when you teach them no more. That day arrived this month for Fillman. He is retiring after 31 years of teaching for Lowell Area Schools, to become an education coordinator for WGVU Public Media.

“The students and the families I’ve connected with here, it’s tough,” he said, wiping away tears. “You can’t help but get attached.”

David and Chelsea Sefton
Former Student’s Biggest Lesson: I Want to Teach

Editor’s note: Chelsea Karas was a fifth-grade student of Mike Fillman’s in 1997-98. She went on to marry a classmate, David Sefton, and became a teacher in Grand Rapids Public Schools, where she teaches fourth grade at Cesar Chavez Elementary. Here, Chelsea Sefton shares some memories of a very special teacher in her life.

Mr. Fillman was one of those teachers you never forget. He was the biggest reason I became a teacher. I saw the way he loved students and invested in their lives, and I wanted to do the same.

Back in fifth grade, I played basketball on a local league and I was very nervous to be playing in my first game. I mentioned it to Mr. Fillman at school the day before the game, and he assured me I would do great. Knowing how much Mr. Fillman liked basketball [he is a Detroit Pistons fan], that meant a lot to me. Fast-forward to game day … I was point guard, and when I began dribbling the ball down the court I remember looking up and seeing Mr. Fillman in the stands! He had come to watch my big game without asking, simply to support one of his students outside of the classroom.

That story has stuck with me for years,and just two weeks ago I had the privilege of paying it forward by doing that with one of my current students, watching them compete in a track meet. It made my student’s day, just as Mr. Fillman had made my day all those years ago.

‘It’s Nice to be Part of Their Life’

He’s grown attached to hundreds of students since starting his teaching career in 1984, after graduating from Western Michigan University. A native of Grand Rapids, he had originally planned a career in broadcasting, but helping to coach some fifth-grade students turned him toward teaching. He was hired by Lowell, at Alto Elementary, and never left.

“I love Lowell, I really do,” said Fillman, 54, who also taught at Cherry Creek before coming to Murray Lake in 2004. “The families really appreciate everything you give, (and) the students follow the families’ lead of appreciating what you’re trying to do for them.

“It’s nice to be part of their life, because they’re a huge part of my life, too.”

It’s not unusual at this time of year for Fillman to be invited to a former student’s high school graduation open house, college commencement or wedding.  

“That tells you that somewhere along the line I said something or did something that connected with them as a student,” he said. “That’s huge. To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

Principal Brent Noskey said parents have been on the phone crying because they wanted their children to have Mr. Fillman next fall. He understands why: Two of his sons had him for a teacher.

“Kids are motivated to learn when they look up to somebody who values them deeply,” Noskey said. “That genuineness about him is just so noticeable.”

Lessons in Treating People Right

In addition to teaching math and English, Fillman has been an exemplary science teacher, training other teachers in a curriculum developed by the Battle Creek Area Mathematics and Science Center, Noskey said. Fillman has a closet full of science supplies, including sand samples students have collected over the years from Hawaii, Egypt and even ash from the Mount St. Helen’s volcano. 

‘It’s nice to be part of their life, because they’re a huge part of my life, too.’ – Mike Fillman

Fillman also taught his students to treat others with respect. It was a lesson he hammered home every year with a story about his sixth-grade teacher at Huff Elementary School, Mike Smith. After Fillman called another student a “fool,” Smith sternly told him never to say that again – or the words “shut up” — because “that’s just not respectful.” (Fillman won’t even say the words now, he just spells them out.)

He hopes those moral lessons have stuck with his students.

“The biggest thing is the way you treat people,” he said firmly. “Grades are important, but it’s the way you treat people that can determine your success.”

Fillman had always wanted to work as a consultant after teaching, so when the opportunity opened up at WGVU he went for it. But despite feeling fortunate to have a second career in TV and radio, it was “a tough, tough decision,” he said.

On his last day of teaching, Fillman did what he has done every year: handed out a yearbook of students’ artwork and memories, then watched as they read them silently.

Entering grades was one of Fillman’s final tasks of his last school year

One page lists what students will miss about fifth grade. “Mr. Fill” and “Mr. Fillman’s jokes” were frequent entries.

As for Fillman, he wrote what could sum up his whole teaching career: “I will miss … being with each of you every day!”

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Murray Lake Elementary School

WGVU Public Media

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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