As she wrapped up her first full year as a teacher, Brittney DesLauries felt a bit buried in paperwork – report cards, progress reports, intervention plans for her students. But she also felt the same spark of enthusiasm that motivated her to be a teacher in the first place.
“I still love to be here,” DesLauries said at the end of a recent school day at East Leonard Elementary School. “There’s a little more exhaustion and the days seem longer, but I’m still super-excited.”
She’s also excited about the next school year, even after teaching her final day of this academic year last Friday. She’s already planning ways to improve her work as a special education resource teacher, in a split class of kindergartners and first-graders at East Leonard, a neighborhood pre-K-5 school of Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Of course, she’s also thinking about how to spend the coming summer. She will work part-time at a daycare and take a couple of road trips with her two sisters, including a week in Las Vegas.
But come mid-August she figures to be good and ready to resume doing the thing she wanted to do since childhood, when she would play teacher and tell her younger sisters to get their homework out.
“I just love seeing the tangibleness of what I am doing every day,” said DesLauries, a cheerful 24-year-old who smiles easily and speaks thoughtfully. “Working with the kids, when you finally see the light bulb go off and they’re able to do something they weren’t able to do before. It’s so exciting, that thrill.”
A Growing Gap
Young teachers like her filled with the thrill of teaching are badly needed these days. In Michigan, the number of students enrolled in college teacher-preparation programs fell by about 70 percent between 2008-09 and 2016-17, according to Title II of the U.S. Higher Education Act. Superintendents reported teacher shortages around the state last fall, including a shortfall of 41 in GRPS.
East Leonard, however, saw a youth influx this year. DesLauries is one of eight teachers there, among 11 total, who have been teaching for three years or fewer. Five of them are first-year teachers. The young hires were a result of retirements, a teacher leaving the profession and a resignation, said Principal Adam Rusticus.
DesLauries said she was not deterred by the prospect of high stress, inadequate pay and lack of public respect that have plagued her profession in recent years. She always loved school as a student, and was drawn to special education “so people who struggle in school, love school,” she said. “That’s my goal is that my kids love school.”
Her routine is demanding: typically arriving by 7:15 a.m., teaching until 3:30 p.m., staying until 5 or 5:30 and planning her lessons for the week on Sundays. But she is determined not to follow the burnout trend of 44 percent of new teachers leaving within five years, according to a long-term study by University of Pennsylvania scholar Richard Ingersoll. “That is not going to be me,” she said firmly.
What fuels her fire? Simple: “I just love helping people, and I love helping kids.
“I really truly believe that education is our future,” she said. “These (students) are the future of our country and of the world. It starts right here in kindergarten. They can come to school and they can love school and they can love learning, and that’s a lifelong skill.
“I just feel what I do every day really makes a difference.”
Confirming her Calling
Her principal agrees.
“Brittney is a self-motivated, compassionate, and patient teacher,” Rusticus said by email. “She perseveres through the barriers and hurdles that all first-year educators encounter. We are lucky to have found Ms. DesLauries, and every school strives to have teachers like her!”
Rusticus hired DesLauries as a long-term substitute in February 2018, then as a staff teacher that April. Though it was her first teaching job, she’d spent plenty of time in classrooms as part of her degree program at Grand Valley State University, including four student-teaching posts in Grand Rapids, Grand Haven and Muskegon.
Though she had occasional doubts if she was cut out for this, she said, “The more I was in the classroom, the more I was sure that, yes, this is where I’m meant to be. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Her class this year consisted of six students in kindergarten or first grade, who had emotional, cognitive or physical impairments but the potential to be mainstreamed into general-education classes. They spent part of their days in her classroom and part in the next-door kindergarten of Lindsey Kaiser. Over the course of the year, some transitioned into general education classes either full- or half-time.
A Typical Day
One morning this semester, DesLauries worked more or less nonstop from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., teaching her “friends,” as she calls them, not only their A-B-C’s but how to mind their P’s and Q’s and, when needed, tying their shoes.
Helped by child care worker Angel Smeets, she covered the classic kindergarten basics: A is for apple; B says buh; here’s how you draw a D (“big line down, big curve”); let’s dance to a video about patterns; let’s have story time on the carpet.
She also tended to her students’ special needs, such as gently guiding a boy through a roller mechanism to calm his overstimulated senses. She constantly strived to keep them on task with a steady mix of praise and admonishment.
“Why do we come to school?” she asked them at an antsy moment. “We are here to learn, so let’s get to learning, everyone.”
“I love it when you do school,” she told a girl having an especially bad day. “It makes me so happy.”
After they left for lunch and recess, DesLauries said one-on-one attention can help students calm down and turn it around.
“I just want all my kids to know, you can be doing whatever …. but I still love you and I still care about you.”
Over the year, she saw students make big gains both in their work and their behavior. She got excited seeing a boy recognize the word “the” for the first time. And the girl having the very, very bad day has come very, very far, she said: “Those things just fill me with such joy.”
As the school year drew to a close, her passion for the work had not dimmed.
“I can’t wait for next year,” she said. “I can’t wait for the years that come after that.”