Unpaid student teachers are just scraping by, but some Dem leaders are working to change that 

By: - March 15, 2022 4:18 am

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Most people who work during the week look forward to the weekend to relax. But for Liz Metzger, who works as a full-time, unpaid student teacher during the week, the weekend is her only time to make money. 

She puts in an estimated 60 hours a week as a student art teacher, between time spent in the classroom and prepping after school hours, on top of her nearly two-hour commute from her home in Allendale Township to Saugatuck High School. And Metzger also works as a manager at a restaurant to pay for her rent, groceries and bills.

Liz Metzger with one of her students in her art class at Rockford High school | Courtesy photo

“Honestly, since I started student teaching, my social life and time where I’m able to see family has dropped significantly,” said Metzger, a student at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids. “I spend probably about half a day to myself a week. … It’s been extremely hard. This is the hardest semester I’ve had during my five years of college.”

The teaching profession has seen a steady decline in new faces leading classrooms, something that’s accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. To combat that, some Democratic lawmakers are proposing stipends for student teachers to improve rates of teacher recruitment. 

A recent study by the Michigan Education Association (MEA) found that one-third of teachers plan to leave the profession, and Doug Pratt, MEA director of public affairs, said the state is already losing more teachers than it gains. 

Pratt estimates the state generates about 5,000 new educators a year with a churn rate between 5,000 and 10,000 educators.

“They’re working full day, and they should get paid for that,” American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Michigan President David Hecker said. “In addition to it being the right thing to do, the enrollment in schools of education have declined precipitously feeding into the teacher shortage problem. They’re going to school, they’re paying tuition, and now we ask them to basically work for free.”

According to Martin Ackley, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan has between 2,600 to 3,000 student teachers per year.

There are some states that offer stipends for student teachers, including Texas and Oklahoma. Colorado offers stipends for student teachers working in rural areas and Indiana has stipends available for minority student teachers and student teachers who plan to go into high-need fields, like special education.

Kendal Exelby, a student teacher at Rockford High School, has had to take money from her savings account to help cover her costs while she isn’t able to work right now. 

Prior to starting as a student teacher, Exelby was working at a barbeque restaurant in Grand Rapids. But Kendall College of Art and Design, where Exelby attends, requires that their students’ employers sign a form saying that they will not be allowed to work weekdays during their student teaching program. 

“I didn’t know about that until a few months before I started teaching, so I didn’t have much time to prepare for that.” Exelby said. 

Exelby said she chose not to pick up a part-time job on the weekends, because she uses her weekends to prepare for her classes during the week. 

“The weekends are my time to prep, so I don’t have the time to give up for another job. I’m already working a full-time job,” Exelby said. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed these issues in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 budget proposal she announced earlier this year, which included $150 million for student teacher stipends.

In total, Whitmer’s budget proposal includes $600 million in investments for teacher recruitment and retention. 

But Whitmer also included student teacher stipends in her FY 2022 budget, which didn’t make it through to the final budget after negotiations with the GOP-led Legislature. 

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.), alongside other lawmakers, is drafting legislation now that would require that student teachers be paid a stipend. 

“It’s a core principle that if you are working, you should get paid. And student teaching is working, it’s a job, and it is not sustainable to have an expectation that people can enter the profession and do unpaid work, when we’re asking them to spend at least a semester, not only not getting paid but then paying for their college tuition at the same time. So we want to make this a more attractive profession,” said Camilleri, a former teacher. 

It’s unclear if the legislation will get support from the House and Senate Republican majority, which often is against efforts backed by the state’s teacher unions, but Camilleri was optimistic that it will garner bipartisan support. 

Liz Metzger, seated in the front, with some of her students in her art class at Rockford High school | Courtesy photo

Whitmer signed Republican-sponsored legislation that will be in place through the end of the school year that allows school districts to use school support staff to fill in as substitutes without any college credits. This is to temporarily address the teacher shortage that schools are facing currently, but isn’t a long term solution.

Metzger said she feels the pressure to perform well in the classroom, but the financial burden of working for months without pay makes that difficult. 

“I probably wouldn’t have to work if I had some type of funding and mentally I would feel more capable. When I work on weekends, I’m usually exhausted when it gets to Sunday and then it kind of just repeats itself on Monday,” Metzger said. “I feel like I’m not able to give my 100%, but I’m forced to work on the weekends because I need that money in order to survive. I don’t have a trust fund or anything or my parents aren’t giving me money in any way. It’s just been me.”

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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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