At Michigan Mathematics and Science Academy (MMSA), a two-campus charter public school in Warren, students thrive through its tuition-free STEM education. But more than that, school leaders and teachers intentionally create a positive, caring environment for students. So we wondered why educators teach at MMSA and talked with two teachers who bring their passion, energy and creativity to their classrooms and beyond.
Both MMSA campuses, K-6 MMSA Lorraine and K-12 MMSA Dequindre, are part of a multistate network of STEM charter schools, and, in Michigan, MMSA schools are authorized by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office, the largest authorizer of Michigan charter schools.
Here, we share the teachers’ thoughts and experiences — plus some insight into what it’s like to be part of a charter public school.
Contributing to her own community
Suzanne Thebert has been a teacher for more than 30 years. Before joining MMSA Dequindre as a middle school science teacher four years ago, she says she felt pressure to never put in more than her standard classroom hours at the traditional public school where she taught. “People really frowned when I wanted to volunteer for any extra things and there was a lot of pressure to give just the contracted time,” Thebert says, adding that contributing to her community gives her joy and adds to her job satisfaction. After all, Thebert doesn’t just work in Warren, she lives there too.
“In a charter school, there’s more freedom. Our survival depends on having the most amount of time with kids and parents and the community and we see the greater good,” she says. “It’s my heart and it’s what I love, and the people here are passionate about it, too. That makes a difference.”
In her sixth grade science and high school botany classrooms — and as head of the school’s science department — Thebert goes out of her way to help students recognize and appreciate the wonders of science every day. She says she’s especially excited about the salmon she and her sixth graders are raising right in the classroom, as part of a project with Michigan DNR.
“I have a license to have game fish in my classroom. We got them as eggs in November and now they’re about 3 inches long,” she explains. The fish will be released into the Clinton River in the spring to “imprint on that spot in the river so they will come back to lay their own eggs there. I tell the kids that if they go salmon fishing in late August, they could catch the salmon that grew from the babies we had in our classroom aquarium.”
Because her students can’t always imagine how large these baby fish will eventually become, Thebert says she has a full-sized cardboard cutout of a salmon — and she provides plenty of background about how and why salmon came to live in Michigan rivers.
“Our goal is to help kids understand ecology, food chains and the human impact on the environment,” she says. She shares with students that salmon were introduced to Michigan when rainbow trout populations declined — and how Michigan anglers prefer catching salmon because they provide an action-filled fishing experience. “Trout taste good, but they don’t fight when they’re caught and anglers want to experience that excitement,” she says.
Personalized learning experiences
At every stage, Thebert helps personalize the learning experience for her students. Together, they create an imaginary town and each child joins the “city council” with a character to represent a segment of the community. “They have to vote on what needs to be done for their environment and they present their character, fully developed.” Thebert says she’s surprised at the lengths her students go to get into character, adopting full backstories and even accents for their role. Just like their real-life counterparts, city council meetings have refreshments, though Thebert draws the line at coffee, despite student requests.
Being part of a charter school allows Thebert this educational flexibility, she says. “Instead of worksheets to demonstrate mastery, students can play a fishing game and their bait costs a question that they must answer correctly. It’s pretty cool,” she says, adding that she enjoys the ability to build enrichments for students with very little red tape.
“I got a grant to build some raised garden beds and it’s something the kids are amazed about and they have to know where their food comes from,” Thebert says. “At a traditional public school, there would be more hoops to jump through. We even have a program where we can go online and request funds for a project.”
All this adds to “less frustration and more job satisfaction,” she says. She describes afternoons she volunteers in the after-care program so she can help teach the youngest children and her role as high school basketball coach, which means she has learned the names of almost all 200 high school students at MMSA. “I find that the more connected you are to the kids, the more they tend to want to do better,” she says.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from knowing that I can try new things without being told no. In a charter school, those who have the time to spend on extra things can and nobody is unhappy about that. I like that a lot more and it makes a difference.”
Passion and enthusiasm
Johann Wright comes from a family of educators and stands on a 22-year teaching career. “I have a rich legacy in education, but teaching is my second career,” says the second grade teacher at MMSA Lorriane who worked in mental health before becoming a teacher in her late 30s. She taught at private and traditional public schools, and says she felt like maybe she was at the end of her teaching career as in-classroom learning resumed following the pandemic’s disruption to education.
Instead, she interviewed at MMSA and was impressed by the enthusiasm of the school’s leaders.
“What I heard brought tears to my eyes. I saw two educators who are passionate about education and the students they serve at the school,” Wright says, adding that everyone, from teachers to maintenance staff to cafeteria workers, share the same passion. “Not only do they nurture the students and parents, but the teaching staff as well. You feel welcomed to the family here. I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
Wright says she loves how everyone at MMSA embraces the “Fish Philosophy,” which she says comes from Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market, which is famous for the elaborate show by fish sellers who make a point of bringing joy to their jobs. “People come running out of their offices to watch the workers there,” she says.
Following the four elements of be there, choose your attitude, make their day, and play, Wright says she encourages her students to laugh, have fun and praise each other — all in an effort to enhance learning and create good citizens.
“My students and I dance. They teach me the latest dances. They also comfort one another with a level of compassion that brings tears to my eyes,” Wright says, adding that in her experience, charter schools are able to lay a foundation to create a future generation of impactful, caring citizens. “This is my first year here and I’m totally on board because of what I see and have experienced. I look forward to every day I walk into the classroom.”
Everyone is fully supported
No matter how minor the challenge, Wright says she always has the support of a network of staff to turn to for help. “There’s always someone I can turn to bring me back to remembering why we are here and no matter how challenging the day, I look forward to tomorrow. In how many jobs can you say that?” she asks.
That level of support flows in all directions, and parents at MMSA recognize that their kids’ educational and social-emotional needs are met in a family-like environment that’s rare in a larger school environment. “We’re paying close enough attention to students’ individual learning needs and if we feel they need additional support, we don’t ignore it. If a student needs supplemental materials or Title 1 support, push-in or pull-out services, we make sure they get it,” Wright says. “I’ve never seen a school do this. If a Title 1 support person is assigned to a set of students but another student asks for help, they are there for them, too.”
It’s this type of inclusion that fuels Wright’s passion as an educator. “I want to retire from MMSA Lorraine. I could not imagine going anywhere else,” she says. “Our students need us to be there, choose our attitudes, play and make their day. They need us, but you know what? We need them too. I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to experience this type of learning environment at this point in my teaching career.”