Archived Story

Teacher, adviser devastated

Published 11:00pm Friday, May 14, 2010

Niles Daily Star

It’s almost 2 p.m. at Niles High School and Ryan Bigelow’s classroom is quiet.

It’s his planning period and the English teacher is fighting a fever. He could have stayed home but he didn’t. Some of his students just do better when he’s in the classroom and that’s something too important to let a little sickness interrupt he said.

When the bell rings and the halls empty, just before he hops on a bus and heads out to coach a soccer game in Sturgis, Bigelow plans on going to the home of one of his students who hasn’t been in class for the last couple of weeks to find out why.

“I care about these kids here,” he said. “I love seeing that light bulb go off.” But even more so, his “forte,” Bigelow said, is building good relationships with his students.
“That’s what I do here,” he said, later adding, “and now that’s being taken away from me.”
Whether he’s aware of it or not, Bigelow, who after five years teaching at Niles High School has become the face of teachers like him, characterized by their salaries, a number in an unfortunate equation, caught in the crossfire of what is now the disheartening reality of the state of education in Michigan.

As the school year comes to an end, countless teachers throughout the state face being laid off.

Bigelow is one of nine teachers in Niles who were handed that same fate last month.
“It has absolutely broken my heart,” he said.

Bigelow came to Niles after he began his teaching career in Kalamazoo, where his mother is still a teacher.

Losing his job is not just one, but two punches in the gut for many teachers. Bigelow has a home here and now he faces the need to find a job for the first time in years, and even if he were to get back into the classroom in another district, he’ll have lost the students in this one.

“Even if I’m not here next year,” Bigelow said he told students, “I’m coming back for your graduation and if I don’t see you walk across that stage and get that diploma, you’re going to have to deal with me.”

The dedication to the success of students, when it comes to teachers across the country, seems to have fallen into the shadows of politics and budget cuts. And now, like Bigelow, many teachers will face looking for work or possibly having to find jobs outside of their profession in order to make ends meet.

“That has been the toughest part,” Bigelow said of dealing with having to leave the classroom. “That’s what hurts the most for me.”

Co-workers have been supportive, he said, as well as students, many of whom wrote letters to him after hearing the news expressing how much they value him.

“I read one of those letters every morning so I can come in here with a smile on my face,” he said.

Bigelow, who has a degree in environmental studies and journalism, said in was on Earth Day, his “favorite day to teach” because it allows him to instill values of environmentalism in his students, when at the end of the day he was called to principal Jim Knoll’s office.

“It went from my favorite day to teach to the worst day of my life,” he said.

If he gets into another classroom, it’s likely Bigelow will put as much dedication and commitment to the success of those students as he has in Niles. But his connection to the district he’s been teaching in for the last five years is evident as he talks about his disappointment over all aspects of the current situation in Niles, where programs and teachers are being cut – something that could have a detrimental effect on the future success of both the students and the school.

So much so that even the self-described worst day of his life became a “a great teachable moment.”

Bigelow said he went home on that day in tears. A co-worker offered to cover his soccer practice. But sitting at home, he realized the lesson he’d pushed to his students about getting up in the morning even when they don’t feel like it and getting their job done in the classroom suddenly applied to himself.

“You’ve got to suck it up and get your job done,” he said.

He got up, coached his team and did just that. And as he walks the halls after the final bell of the day, talking about the successes of various students as if he were their biggest fan, bracing for the end of the year and worrying about the future, it’s obvious that Bigelow will continue to do his job to the best of his ability inside the halls of Niles High School until the final bell of the year.

And probably even after that.

But his classroom at Niles High School won’t be the same.

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