Staff profile: Jodi Bullinger


Jodi Bullinger, who’s been a teacher at Pioneer for over two decades, transitioned into her administrative role as ninth-grade dean at the beginning of this year.

A look at Pioneer’s Jodi Bullinger, her teaching philosophy, transition into administration, and her goals in this new position. 

“It’s been like putting out fires all over the place,” said Jodi Bullinger, Pioneer’s longtime psychology teacher, who moved into an administrative position as ninth-grade dean at the beginning of this year. While the school has been dealing with one problem after another, Bullinger has strived to make meaningful, systemic changes. 

Before becoming part of the administration, she was a teacher at Pioneer for over two decades. Bullinger first developed an interest in teaching during her time at the University of Michigan, where as a student athlete, she worked in a program called Project Outreach. 

“I came back to Pioneer to do some academic mentoring and to work in our athletic tutoring center and realized I really liked it,” she said. “Maybe I’ll take a look at this, I thought.”

Throughout her time teaching, Bullinger gained a reputation for connecting with students. Her administrative colleague Daniel Hyliard says it is her best quality. “She has great ideas but the best part about her is that she builds relationships and connects with kids,” he said. “They feel comfortable going to her for advice and support.”

Bullinger says that the most important lessons that she can give students were about how to conduct themselves in the world. “I think about 50% of what you teach is related to the curriculum and the other 50% is the other stuff.”

She says that for a student, seeing a teacher having a tough day and handling their situation is very important. “You learn that it’s a choice,” she said. “You go out in the world and you find yourself in a negative situation and you don’t treat people horrendously.”

What made her leave teaching was a more complicated answer. 

Part of it was an urge to implement some of her ideas throughout the school. “I wanted an opportunity to take some of the things that I was doing in my classroom and not confine it to the walls of a classroom,” she said. “What kind of ways can we really work on social emotional health in a school? What kinds of ways can we think about how we’re writing exams, so that we’re writing them in ways that kids are performing differently because of implicit bias in the test questions?”

It was also a frustration with the scrutiny and lack of autonomy that she says that teachers increasingly had to deal with. “What happened in my classroom was magical. I miss that. I grieve the loss of that,” she said. “But the truth of the matter is, I was already grieving the loss of that before I left the classroom. It was taken away from us by mandates and by the amount of busy work that we were being asked to do. I couldn’t take it anymore.” 

Bullinger was frustrated and felt like she had to do something to change it. “To encapsulate the primary reason I went into administration before retiring, it was that mantra of don’t complain about something unless you’re willing to try to be part of the solution,” she said.

But Bullinger’s decision to move to an administrative role was also dominated by finances. “I’ll have two kids in college soon. I almost couldn’t afford to be a teacher anymore,” she said. “That choice was coming about whether or not I was going to have to transition careers to accommodate providing resources for my own kids and that’s really sad to say.”

The transition after over two decades in the classroom to an administrative role hasn’t been easy for Bullinger. “I had done a lot to prepare, but it’s still a massive learning curve,” she said. “I think the biggest concern for me is that I don’t know what I don’t know. That bothers me, because I don’t want to screw it up.”

This transition has come during a chaotic year, making it even more difficult. “I am relying on my skill set as a college athlete more than I ever thought I would,” said Bullinger. “As an athlete, one of the skill sets I learned is that you don’t always like your teammates, but there’s an end game. And you have to come together and make things work.”

Extending that metaphor, Bullinger says that from the employee shortages and changes to administration personnel, Pioneer has been on their back heels. “I think that we feel like we’ve been playing defense more than we want to play defense,” she said. “But it’s a big undertaking to try to get to the point where we can kind of go on the offensive and say we want to get some stuff done.”

When she is not helping to plan Homecoming or working with the custodial staff to reorganize seating in the cafeteria to comply with coronavirus protocols, she works as the ninth-grade dean, a position rooted in the importance of freshman year. “If we can give students a really good foundation in ninth grade, they’re more likely to graduate,” said Bullinger.

In practice this means determining what combination of support a student needs, whether it be tutoring, help with organization, or tools to study effectively. 

When asked what her goal was, she was very clear: to hand every ninth grader a diploma when they graduate. “(I want) them to walk into the life that they want, not the life that happened to them, whether that is being an extraordinary mechanic, joining the Marines, owning your own beauty salon, or going to study astrophysics at Harvard,” she said. “Our job is to create individuals who leave and and continue to make the world a better place.”

To do this, Bullinger wants to shift the thinking of teachers and the school system to focus on long term outcomes. “We really have to think about every decision that we make, what’s the end game,” she said.  “If I hold the line on accepting this late work today but I know that student has extenuating circumstances, and that kid doesn’t graduate, what kind of life are we looking at? If this student is able to contribute positively to the community that they’re in, we’re all better for it.”

Changing this thinking isn’t always easy, as there’s a lot of inertia and individuals’ attitudes can be barriers. “People are overwhelmed, so the idea of changing everything is just too much,” she said. “When we get uncomfortable, or we get stressed out, or we get overwhelmed, we go back to what’s familiar.”

She takes from her background in psychology to help think about this. “Norms are very hard to shift,” she says. “You have to get a critical mass of people to all buy into the same thing. And then it has to become habitual.”

Part of the way to do this, says Bullinger, is having difficult conversations. “It’s sitting down and analyzing our systems looking at which ones need to change and how that impacts our outcome,” she said. “Having the conversations that come with that are often not pleasant, so it’s about being comfortable with people not necessarily always liking you. You can talk about stuff all day but if you’re not doing stuff, then nothing ever changes.”

Bullinger says that finding the time to make some of these fundamental changes is hard when they are “always putting out fires.”

“We were so far on the defensive, that we’ve struggled to get going, and that’s been deeply frustrating to me,” she said. “I think we’re at the point where we can see some hope to go on the offensive with some things. But if one little thing happens, we’re back to trying to keep just putting out fires, putting out fires, putting out fires.”

Getting some of the deeper work done means fighting for whatever time you can get. “3am is where we fight for some of the time but that’s not always feasible,” she said. “You can’t have a meeting with students at three o’clock in the morning.”

Looming over all of this is a worry about the future of public education. “If you look at the age of teachers, especially at Pioneer, there’s not going to be people to replace the people that are eligible for retirement,” she said. “Given that it’s not unique to Ann Arbor, we’re really at a critical point. Our short staffing is big.”

Bullinger believes that her own journey out of the classroom is indicative of what is driving many teachers out of the profession. “Teachers aren’t leaving because of what happens inside their classroom door, it’s everything that happens outside the classroom door,” she said. 

Talking with Bullinger, she still is the passionate and pragmatic person that many at Pioneer know her to be, but she seems uncharacteristically worn out. Despite this she keeps pushing forward. “It’s like a ship in the water,” said Bullinger. “It takes a really long time (to move it), progress is slow, you can barely see it but once you get the ship moving, it’s hard to stop.”

“I think a lot of people give up prematurely because it’s just so much work,” she said. “You have to outlast it.”