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U.P. teacher appeals to celebrities for classroom funding and fights for pay equity

It's already that time of the year when teachers across the country ask their friends and families to help them fill their classroom wishlists. There are currently 1,400 classrooms in Michigan seeking funding through Donors Choose.

LAKE LINDEN HUBBELL, Mich. — One Upper Peninsula educator takes an innovative approach to classroom funding. Heather French asks celebrities, athletes, sports teams, and other notable people on social media to share her classroom wish list. Exposure to a larger audience is her solution to meeting her classroom and school community's needs.

Dr. Bob Lorinser, a candidate for U.S. Congress seeking to represent Lake Linden Hubbel's district, says French's admirable endeavor is a poignant reminder that federal education funding and teacher compensation is sorely lacking.

How did we get here?

A study conducted from 2018-2021 by EduTopia found the average U.S. classroom budget to be $212. Can you imagine outfitting a classroom for 30 students with $200? That is all of your paper, printer ink, technology supplies, books, workbooks, stamps, stickers, binders, clips, incentives, decor — all of it. It's about $7 per student for the year.

"I am thankful my classroom budget is more than that," says French. "However, I am in a unique position; I teach English for middle and high school and K-12 Art. My student population is roughly 350 students. The budget goes fast. I filled out my end-of-the-year paperwork and realized I still needed to leave room for my English classes. So here I am again, messaging authors, Michigan-well-knowns, any damn person that will listen, asking them to please help me."

French asked Dr. Bob to spread the word. Sharing her mission of pay equity and public education funding, he wanted to highlight her story.

If outside sources don't help Ms. French and other educators like her, teachers buy supplies themselves. Why? Because they don't want students to go without. Teachers want students' school experiences to be as positive and memorable as possible.

Even with her Amazon list fulfilled last year thanks to a share by Lou Diamond Phillips, French still invested $2,311 in her students. On average, teachers spend $500 - $1,000 on classroom supplies.

French was recognized as Michigan Region 1 Teacher of the Year, which encompasses the entire UP. She recalls a press training in Lansing, teaching honorees how to handle negative press — "I saw my face on the screen accompanying an article about how low teacher pay in the Upper Peninsula is. I burst into tears. I was embarrassed, but I was also mortified. It started a conversation, and we found that teachers in the lower peninsula were making significantly more than their Yooper counterparts."

Equity in education quickly became her platform.

"We need pay equity across the state. We need uniformity in budgets for Title 1 schools like mine, where the need is high and over 50% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. We need funding to have good teachers on board and keep our classroom environments innovative."

French continues to advocate for her profession, but she supports her students most of all. Not every student can afford a pencil case, let alone a pencil. She makes kits for each student so no one goes without the basics: scissors, glue, crayons, etc. "Who wants to walk into a barren classroom?"

To provide for her students, she resorts to the Internet, pleading with her network and beyond to help fund her classroom, and then pays for what she can't get covered out of her pocket.

"You will find millions of teachers like me around the country that do this," said French. "We are fed the line that this profession is a 'calling,' and only the strong do it. But our heads and budgets are always the first on the political chopping blocks.

"I am honored to be able to help share the needs of our Michigan students across the state: they need us more than ever.

When you see that teacher posting on Facebook, donate a notepad or Play-Doh because you are doing several things at once: bringing joy, hope, and fulfillment to our Michigan students, and you are getting some relief to your local teacher. Heaven knows we need it."

Heather French is passionate about what she does. She loves her students and is proud to serve her community.

"But, I cannot do this alone," she says. "Please help advocate for our students and our schools. We need support. We need funding. We need to come together to provide our students with the best possible start in life that we can."

You can help her do that here.


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