Uncertified Excellence

Robbie Stapleton gives a lecture to her health class

Originally Published May 4, 2010:

Robbie Stapleton has taught health at Community High School for 11 years, and to the surprise of many, this year will be her last.

Stapleton, who received a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan in history as well as in health promotion through the Kinesiology Department, started teaching at CHS in 1987. She originally taught civics, history, and physical education, and it wasn’t until 1998 that then-Dean Judy Conger asked her if she would consider teaching health. “I told her I was happy to,” said Stapleton, “but I’m not certified.”

Twelve years ago, it didn’t matter. Stapleton’s educational background was solid and was centered on the curriculum of health, qualifying her for the job in every way aside from official certification. It wasn’t until the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001 that the state started maintaining that every teacher must be certified.

Stapleton understands that, in theory, this is logical, but she also sees the flaws. “Bureaucracies, by their nature, are not designed to deal with exceptions,” she said. While Stapleton did not go through training specifically for health education, she went through training on the content of a health curriculum. She has also been teaching health for so many years without certification that it is hard to believe the state does not recognize her as “qualified.”

In order to be certified in health education, Stapleton would have to return to school. The situation is surrounded with irony. “I have no incentive to pay $15,000 to get a minor in what I majored in,” she said. If state administrators were to look at her portfolio, they would see that she has already taken the majority of the required coursework, aside from the specific health education courses. Still, her knowledge of the curriculum has been beyond sufficient up until this point. “They will probably have to take down the test the district uses for health testing-out,” Stapleton said, “because I wrote it.”

Stapleton has never kept her lack of certification a secret. When Peter Ways became the new dean of CHS, she was the first to tell him. She tells everyone she is working under what is called a “provisional certificate,” a certificate that is considered temporary until replaced with an official version. Around two years ago, Ways received the email telling him “the gig was up”and the state was not going to allow Stapleton to teach health until she received a valid certificate in health education.

In an intimate setting like CHS, this loss hits close to home for many students and staff. Stapleton’s curriculum is comprehensive, relevant, and thoughtful, which are qualities students rarely associate with health class, if any class at all. “I have learned more in that class than I have in any other,” said Gabe Appel-Kraut, a CHS senior. “It’s my second favorite, behind personal fitness with Robbie.”

Appel-Kraut appreciated health not only for the content, but also for the way Stapleton presented the information. “I didn’t just learn the facts. She aided me in learning about myself.” In three weeks, Appel-Kraut is running a half-marathon. “I didn’t even run until I met Robbie,” he said.

Nadeem Persico-Shammas, another CHS senior, has also experienced long-term benefits from Stapleton’s health class. Every semester, Stapleton assigns each student a four-week project that includes setting a goal to improve their life in one area of wellness. Persico-Shammas chose physical wellness, cutting junk food out of his diet completely, eating four fruits and vegetables per day, and working out six days per week. “I knew it would improve my life, but I was surprised by how much,” said Persico-Shammas. When the four weeks were up, he received praise from Stapleton and encouragement to keep going. He has. Persico-Shammas credits Stapleton’s support. “She’s a great teacher. She’s a great person. New kids will be missing out.”

As those that know Stapleton would expect, she is anything but bitter about this announcement. “It’s the way of the world, it’s life, it’s what happens,” she said with a smile and a shrug. Her optimism allows her to focus on the fact she will still be teaching personal fitness and her forum, and she knows they will “still be great.” Teaching a social studies class is also a possibility.

Stapleton believes that the state should provide educators with the options of providing a portfolio or taking an exam in order to receive certification, as alternatives to going back to school. John Austin, the Vice President of the Michigan State Board of Education, is also helping Stapleton look for a different way to get certified. For now, Stapleton is not a candidate for teaching health next year. No other CHS teacher is either, so Stapleton predicts the district will bring in a part-time teacher instead. The disappointment is obvious among the CHS student body and faculty.

“I know it sounds like b.s.,” said Appel-Kraut, “but I think Robbie can save lives. She goes beyond the content on a realistic and individual level. She makes you take a step back and look at yourself.”