From the schoolhouse to the state House: Burned-out teacher finds new way to advocate for students

By: - January 3, 2022 10:06 am

Kyle Zawacki, seated left in red shirt, sending off his class of New Boston Huron High School seniors. Submitted photo

When Kyle Zawacki first started teaching nine years ago, he thought he would retire as a teacher. Then came a pandemic and politicized fights about critical race theory (CRT) between school districts, parents and teachers, which became too much for Zawacki to bear. 

Zawacki, who was a social studies and Native American studies teacher at New Boston Huron School District in the Downriver area, left the profession in August after a tough two years teaching during the pandemic and being harassed by parents who believed he was teaching CRT to high school students. 

Critical Race Theory is a college-level theory that examines the systemic effects of white supremacy in America and is not taught in Michigan K-12 schools. Despite this, Republicans in both the state House and state Senate have introduced bills to prohibit schools from teaching any curriculum that includes the “promotion of any form of race or gender stereotyping or anything that could be understood as implicit race or gender stereotyping.”

“Radicalized factions within the community … have attacked teachers, and I was one of them personally harassed,” said Zawacki. “It made this career untenable, made something that I love doing just unbearable.”

So Zawacki found another way to advocate for students outside of the classroom — the state Legislature. 

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri and House Democrats announce their unemployment benefits package, Sept. 3, 2019 | Nick Manes

Zawacki started working as the legislative director for state Rep. Darrin Camillieri (D-Brownstown Twp.), another former teacher and vice chair of the House Education Committee, in mid-October. 

“The idea of leaving teaching in 2019? No, not a chance. The idea of getting out of education or not being an educator was unfathomable to me,” Zawacki said. “The fact that I was a classroom teacher six months ago, and now I’m helping Rep. Camilleri’s office draft legislation and will get to meet with the state superintendent to discuss it. I have to pinch myself sometimes. This is amazing.”

One piece of legislation that Zawacki is looking forward to working on is an 18-bill education package, known as the respecting educators package, to address the state’s teacher attrition issue. One bill in the package that Camilleri introduced would create a student loan forgiveness program for public school teachers that covers up to $300 per month in student loan payments. 

He also wants to see legislation that would give stipends to future educators during their student-teaching program. 

“Right now student teachers usually have to pay at least 12 credit hours, if not a full year’s worth of credit hours. That is absolutely insane and it’s such a barrier, especially to minority populations that don’t have the ability to do that. They can’t quit a job. They can’t assume double the amount of debt,” said Zawacki, who is still paying off student loans from when he was a student teacher a decade ago.

Zawacki isn’t the only teacher to leave the profession exhausted from the pandemic and the politicization of K-12 education over the last two years. Michigan has struggled with teacher retention and teacher shortages for years, but the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. 

Michigan’s educator retirement rate jumped 44% during the 2020-2021 school year, according to a July 2021 survey done by Launch Michigan, a statewide K–12 partnership consisting of education, business, philanthropic and civic leaders. During the 2019-20 school year, around 420 teachers retired mid-school year. 

One way to address the leaky teacher pipeline and the growing number of educators leaving the profession is to have more people in Lansing who understand the ins-and-outs of the classroom, said Camilleri. 

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

“When I was seeking to fill the role for my legislative director, Kyle stood out because having more people with education backgrounds can help us make education policy that makes sense,” said Camilleri. “There are too many people in the Capitol who do not have real world education experience. I think with more of us at the table, we’ll be able to craft policies that can fix the problems that we see in our classrooms.”

Through his new position, Zawacki still has the opportunity to work hands-on with young people. 

Camilleri tapped Zawacki to lead the Downriver Youth Advisory Council, which the state representative created in May to provide teenagers and young adults an opportunity to get involved in state politics. 

“That group is so special to me because it’s students. I’ve missed the classroom every single day,” said Zawacki. “There are other avenues for me to still have those interactions with students and young people and make a difference and help them learn and be engaged and involved.”

One issue that Zawacki is looking forward to tackling in Lansing is getting more people to join and stay in the education workforce, but he says “we need to fix these issues by respecting educators like we should have for the last 20 years.”

Coming out of the classroom and into a new role where he can help shape policy that will improve both learning experiences and workplace experiences, Zawacki already has firsthand knowledge of what students and educators need. 

“I’ve met with a couple of local superintendents and a lot of my friends work at public schools, so all of those contacts that I’ve made in the last nine years, now I’m able to pull these strings and be like, ‘hey, you’re frustrated about something or think something should be fixed? What do you have in mind?’ It’s just awesome, so fulfilling and so rewarding,” said Zawacki.

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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