Betsy Tutt said one of her favorite parts about monthly education division meetings at William Woods University is the wit Michael Tan brings to the conference table.
“He is able to work his dry sense of humor into any situation,” Tutt said. “He observes the absurdity of life.”
Tutt, chairwoman of the education division at William Woods University, recalled when she received a letter addressed to Mr. Betsy Tutt. Tan remarked that he was uninformed about his boss’ new gender.
“Michael is very professional,” Tutt continued, “but also very personable.”
Tan is running for one of the two open spots on the Columbia School Board against incumbent Karla DeSpain and retired school media center director Jan Mees. Tan ran last year and received 13 percent of the vote. Since then, he has worked on his campaign in hopes of being more visible to the public.
“I have an election committee and am fundraising,” said Tan, adding that both of these are new to his campaign this year.
Tan said he has also met with parents and curriculum coordinators.
“I’ve taken a more active role in meeting with the administration,” he said about the Columbia Public School system. “I’m a lot more informed about what’s going on.”
Because Tan, 55, is running for a second time, Tutt said the community will see he is committed and has a genuine interest in education. “I encouraged him to run again,” she said.
Tutt said that when she hired Tan in 1996, her first impression was he was a breath of fresh air. She thought he was a very bright, professional family man who cared deeply about education.
“Ten years later,” Tutt said, “my first impressions have panned out.”
Tan, who is from Malaysia, taught elementary education for seven years in Malaysian public schools. He also taught at a teacher training college in Malaysia, where he met a colleague who got her master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“That’s how I decided to come to Wisconsin to get my degree,” Tan said.
He has a bachelor’s degree in education, a master’s degree in library and information studies, a master’s degree in educational administration and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, all from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Tan married his wife, Rachel, in 1979. She also is Malaysian, and the pair became American citizens seven years ago and adopted new first names — Michael from Sweelin and Rachel from Sawtee.
They moved to Columbia in 1996 so he could take a job at William Woods University in Fulton, where he has taught for 11 years. He is an associate professor of education and serves as director of clinical experiences.
Their sons, Kevin, 25, and Kenny, 20, both graduated from Hickman High School and are in medical school. His daughter, Kristina, 17, is a junior at Hickman.
Spending time with his family is important to Tan, a steak-and-lasagna man who enjoys going out to eat with his family, especially on birthdays.
Tan also enjoys singing and listening to music. “I listen to religious, folk and country music,” Tan said. “I like Sheryl Crow and Gretchen Wilson, but Celine Dion is probably my favorite.”
Tan is also involved with five professional education organizations and has served on three accreditation teams with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “I go for about six days out of the year and evaluate one school, making sure standards are met,” he said. “I meet with teachers, look through the curriculum and observe classes.”
Tan is involved in the Education Law Association, using his expertise in education legislation to give presentations for the group. His experience comes from teaching education law classes at William Woods; he said he must keep up with current issues in the education world in order to educate his students well. “I like to keep myself updated,” he said.
Tan thinks that in the Columbia Public Schools, how students are taught math is a major issue needing immediate attention. He thinks the problem is tied to a lack of communication among parents and teachers, as well as the math coordinators in the district.
“I think it’s great that parents are coming forward to start the community dialogue,” said Tan, whose daughter takes traditional math courses at Hickman.
Tan said that although he understands the value of creative problem-solving methods, it is more important for students to learn traditional math skills, such as algorithms.
“When students get to the SAT or the ACT, there are time constraints and they cannot necessarily take the time to draw pictures and think about the methods,” he said. “The district needs to look for a balanced program that offers creative learning strategies yet teaches traditional math skills.”
Tan said that if elected, he wants to be available to the public. “I want the members of the community to feel comfortable e-mailing or calling the board to voice their concerns,” he said.
Schools can improve communication with the board and be more involved in the decision-making process by selecting a student board representative from Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools.
On the issues
At the heart of his desire for better communication is his hope that it will lead to increased student academic achievement. He also thinks the board should publicly recognize teachers for years of service, perhaps through a plaque or a gift certificate donated by businesses.
Tan, like Mees and DeSpain, favors approval of a $60 million school bond issue, which would be used to fund new construction and repair school facilities.
Teacher salaries should also be on the board’s mind, Tan said. He said he knows how challenging teaching is and, often, the salary doesn’t compensate adequately.
“What is a starting teacher’s salary of $34,000 compared with a starting mechanical engineer or other professional at $40,000 or $50,000?” Tan asked. “It’s pitiful.”
Tan said he also thinks merit pay, if introduced correctly, could provide teachers with incentive to improve. “We have to be cautious in setting up the criteria,” he said. “Higher test scores are just one piece of the components of merit pay.” Other forms of criteria include classroom observation by principals, recommendations from peers and input from parents, Tan said.
Regardless of whether he wins, Tan’s life’s work is education. “My passion,” he said, “is teaching.”