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Honing their craft as fellows in TeachMichigan

Program aims to retain teachers statewide

Kentwood — With her fourth-graders circled around her, Chelsea Zawacki read “All Are Welcome,” pausing on each page to ask questions about the book’s theme, setting and illustrations.

Students answered eagerly, observing the diversity of children in the book — just like in their classroom.

As a TeachMichigan fellow working to earn National Board Certification with a focus on early and middle childhood literacy, the morning read-aloud aligned with Zawacki’s goals as an educator around equity, fairness and diversity, which is also a standard of the certification.

She has many books in her classroom with characters and by authors that reflect her students’ many backgrounds and ethnicities.

“If my students can see themselves in the books and stories they read, I think they are just more interested in it,” she said.

While Zawacki is working to earn the respected NBC credential, fourth-grade teacher Cherrell Wilson, in her third year teaching at Glenwood Elementary, is excited to improve her craft as she grows in the profession; and Valleywood Middle Spanish teacher Sierra Cox-Parada is building on her education and training to move into administration.

‘Education has taken a shift where there are more challenges than there ever has been before. Time is of the essence.’

 — Carrie Tellerico, Kentwood Public Schools executive director of early education

The TeachMichigan two-year fellowship is offering the teachers opportunities that fit with their individual goals.

The $60 million statewide talent initiative, $35 million committed by the State of Michigan, focuses on training and keeping high-impact educators who work in schools identified as under-resourced across Michigan.

In total, 29 Kentwood teachers are fellows in three cohorts: early career teachers; those seeking NBC; and aspiring administrators. Grand Rapids Public Schools also has nine fellows in that district.

Brookwood Elementary teacher Chelsea Zawacki reads to her students

The program started as the state’s effort to bring Teach for America’s Detroit efforts to scale across Michigan. Teach Michigan’s goal is to recruit, retain and develop more than 700 high-impact teachers and improve outcomes for some 250,000 students, according to a press release. It is one of several initiatives aimed at teacher retention and recruitment in West Michigan.

Teachers receive $35,000 over the course of the fellowship on top of their salary (NBC teachers who teach in high needs schools will now receive $10,000 a year through an incentive fund from the State of Michigan.). 

“The problems facing our educators and students are not a people problem, they’re a systems problem,” said Armen Hratchian, executive director of TFA Detroit, in the release. “TeachMichigan is directly investing in educators and leaders in systemically under-resourced communities because we know those are the people who are best positioned to change the long-term outcomes for our kids, and to build better systems for all teachers to be more valued.” 

‘Time is of the essence’

Debbie Schuitema, director of new teacher development, and Carrie Tellerico, executive director of elementary education, are helping coordinate Kentwood’s work with TeachMichigan.

“Education has taken a shift where there are more challenges than there ever (have) been before. Time is of the essence,” Tellerico said. “Also, people being honored for their work is very important. And people investing in their growth is just as impactful as investing in our students.”

Among other training opportunities, teachers in the program will attend four weekend workshops. The first was this fall in Detroit.

Teachers and early career administrators will be able to apply for 30 more spots that will open for next school year.

“The investment truly is about that personal growth with some incentive. As we know, educators don’t get a lot of those extrinsic incentives,” Tellerico said. “A lot of what educators do, we do because it’s our passion. It’s about growing and supporting children and their families.”

Glenwood Elementary’s Wilson earned her education degree after working in several support staff positions in Ann Arbor Public Schools and Kentwood. She sees TeachMichigan as a way to keep growing as a Kentwood teacher.

“TeachMichigan is awesome because it’s nice to meet with fellow early educators from around the Michigan area,” she said. “I’m really excited about learning and growing with them. … Diving into the work to provide equitable opportunities is something I really think is going to benefit me in the classroom.”

Valleywood Middle Spanish teacher Sierra Cox-Parada presents a lesson to her students

Cox-Parada, in her 13th year of teaching, hopes to become an administrator in a middle or high school who leads based on equitable practices. Her master’s is in urban educational leadership from Davenport University.

“My goal is to be … specifically working with Black and brown students, and to be able to share my ideas and all the knowledge I’ve gained.” 

As for Zawacki, “Anything that is going to make me a better teacher, that is going to advance my craft, is something I want to be a part of. I want to be the best that I can be for my students. I have taught fourth-grade for a while, but I still know there is so much more growth I can move toward.”

More from Kentwood: 
National History Teacher of Year: ‘Teach truth that resonates’
Students debug their way through STEM class

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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