Since she was a child, Denise Grandits wanted to be a teacher.
But then her life happened: marriage, kids and before she knew it, she was 20 years deep into her career working for a large healthcare organization in Western New York.
“I had a boss who saw something in me and said I should pursue my master’s,” said Grandits, recalling what her boss actually had in mind was that she pursue a master’s in business administration. “I thought it over and told my husband, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to get my master’s in something in which I’m interested.’ Ever since I was in second grade I wanted to be a teacher. So, I decided to go for it.”
And at age 43, she graduated from Empire State College with a master’s in teaching English Education.
Now a 10-year classroom veteran and English language arts teacher at Franklin Middle School in Kenmore, Grandits has never looked back.
“It was scary as heck to leave a career in which I knew there was always going to be a paycheck and moving on to a profession that I knew I always wanted to pursue but was uncertain what to expect and whether I could even do it,” said the Kenmore Teachers Association member. “But now, when I look at my students, there’s not a question in my mind whether I made the right decision. I’d do it again in a heart beat.”
Peter Stuhlmiller of co-host local union Kenmore Teachers Association leads the discussion. Photo by Dan Cappellazzo.
“There are no simple solutions. That’s why we started this."
Grandits talked about her non-traditional path to the classroom during NYSUT’s Take a Look at Teaching Summit held Thursday at Kenmore Middle School near Buffalo. And, though perhaps not intentionally, she served as Exhibit A for the type of professional career changer the union-led initiative hopes to attract into the profession at a time when the state and nation confronts a looming teacher shortage.
Statewide, enrollment in teacher education programs has dropped by 47 percent since 2009, and last year, SUNY projected the Empire State will need 180,000 teachers in the next decade.
In addition, the education workforce across the country, as well as in New York, does not reflect the diversity of its communities and student population. In New York, 43 percent of students are Hispanic/Latino or African-American, compared to 16 percent of the teacher population.
“There are no simple solutions. That’s why we started this,” NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango said of the Take a Look at Teaching campaign.
Thursday’s summit was attended by classroom teachers from across the Buffalo area, higher education professionals, school administrators and students. It was the union’s second in a series of planned meetings, this one held in collaboration with West Seneca and Kenmore teachers associations. A previous summit was held in Syracuse in October, and future events are planned for Rochester and northern New York.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango. Photo by Dan Cappellazzo.
“The ability to connect with our students is critical."
DiBrango said the idea behind the summits is to spark meaningful discussion about the challenges and rewards of teaching, and to “spread the word that teachers make a difference in their communities.” She added it was important to hear directly from students about what they think makes a good teacher.
For Aaron Mendez, a junior at Kenmore West High School, what makes a great teacher is someone “who puts time into getting to know a student, and making sure students really understand a subject” — as opposed to just knowing enough to memorize what they learn and regurgitate that information on a test.
Mendez wasn’t alone. “Connecting” was a theme repeated by the educators in attendance, time and again, as well.
Aaron Mendez, a junior at Kenmore West High School. Photo by Dan Cappellazzo.
“The ability to connect with our students is critical, whether that connection is large or small, however briefly: a handshake, a nod, whatever it might be,” said Andrew Jordan, a special education teacher with Monroe BOCES #1 and a NYSUT Board of Directors member. “That connection is what’s present in every successful classroom.”
But pivotal to making that connection, Jordan said, is teachers having “the freedom to not only succeed, but fail.
“Failing isn’t a failure,” Jordan said. “It’s actually an opportunity to learn. I need to have the freedom to teach a bad lesson in order to improve it — and that helps my students.”
Andrew Jordan, Monroe BOCES #1. Photo by Dan Cappellazzo.
“Students help you stay current.”
DiBrango and others Thursday acknowledged it has been difficult to attract students into the teaching profession at a time when educators are being unfairly evaluated, and having their performance judged based upon test scores.
“Elevating the profession,” DiBrango said, is critical because “teachers have been punching bags for too long.”
Amanda Winkelsas, director of the state University at Buffalo’s Teacher in Residency master’s program, said Take a Look at Teaching is a great step toward improving teacher recruitment because the campaign not only shines a spotlight on the looming shortage, but also what’s great about the profession and the opportunity that exists.
The former United Federation of Teachers member and high school English teacher in New York City said: “Even at the end of a hard day I would say to my students, ‘It’s the end of another day doing the best job in the world.’”
“Students help you stay current,” said the 10-year teaching veteran. “And it was always an interesting challenge to say, ‘Ok, how can I work to take this piece of literature from 100 years ago and make it fit into their lives now.’ It’s pretty exciting when it works.”
“I love making connections with my kids,” she said. “I love, hoping, that I am making a difference – not only in how they do with reading and writing but how they see, and grow in, our world.”