Candice Jackson, a third grade teacher and Michigan’s 2023 Teacher of the Year, didn’t even know she had been nominated for the honor until December, when she received an email from the state of Michigan asking for her headshot and resume.
“I literally had to go down to my principal (and say) ‘I have no idea what this is for, why are they contacting me?’” Jackson told Bridge Michigan. “So it all happened really quick.”
Jackson sits at her desk in her second-floor classroom at Mann Learning Community in Detroit, on the final Monday of the school year. Her students are with their co-teacher in the classroom next door. Two fans are running in the background, because the building doesn’t have air conditioning. According to Jackson, the stories like the one that led to the Teacher of the Year award are not uncommon in the world of teaching.
“The best thing about being a teacher is probably the unpredictability,” Jackson said. “There are never two days that are the same, never two classrooms that are the same … That makes teaching fun.”
Jackson, who is African-American, has spent 21 years teaching in Detroit, spending the last six years at Mann Learning Community, a school which has a much larger Black population than the schools she grew up in.
“I grew up in Macomb County,” Jackson said. “When I was growing up I had very, very few teachers that looked like me. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Harrington, she was the only African American teacher I had growing up … I wanted to grow up and be just like her.”
A lack of diversity in educators was one of the reasons Jackson entered the profession. According to data collected by the Michigan Department of Education in 2018, 91.6 percent of teachers in Michigan were white, while only two thirds of students in the state are white. Black teachers like Jackson accounted for only 5.9 percent of the workforce, compared to 18 percent of students.
Jackson’s new position means she has the power to influence the future of education in the state she’s lived her whole life. She will hold a non-voting seat at the State Board of Education meetings every month. Jackson also holds a spot on the governor’s Educator Advisory Council. During her time with these organizations, she hopes to see some change in the school system. One such change is an increased focus on mental health.
“Kids are dealing with a lot,” said Jackson, who attended Michigan State University and is a mother of three boys, two of whom also attend MSU. “I think mental health is one of those things we ignore. And what ends up happening is things spiral out of control. If we pay attention to those risk factors, we can intervene early, and provide the necessary treatment.”
Jackson thinks that an increased focus on mental health will help improve school safety as well.
“In some instances, around the state and around the country, there have been things, red flags, and no one addressed them,” Jackson said. “And then, you have something like a school shooting, where, if the proper protocols were used, possibly lives could’ve been saved or something could’ve been done to identify and target the student.”
“There is no proof that retention actually works as intervention, and it does cause trauma for the students that are retained,” Jackson said. “Also, retention disproportionately affects students of color and low socioeconomic students. I also think that repealing the retention portion of the law allows us to focus on providing reading intervention and strategy and help our students no matter what grade they are.”
As Jackson talks about the future of the Michigan education system, she also discusses the future on a smaller scale, particularly in her own classroom, which is covered in drawings of light bulbs, an idea she and her co-teacher came up with.
To Jackson, the lightbulbs represent what educators across Michigan are trying to do everyday: “illuminating greatness.”