COMMUNITY VOICES | Teaching kids in this weather, and the District's response

Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said she had no second thoughts about going ahead with classes. “We have hot days during the year,” she said. “I think that we’ll be able to handle it.”’ This is a quote from Steve Brandt and Bill McAuliffe’s August 27, 2013 article in the Star Tribune. 

Yeah, we’re handling it. We’re handling it by having students eat ice every hour or so and ensuring they don’t move so much as to generate more body heat. And by having them spread eagle on tile hallways so they can maximize skin-to-stone contact in a vain attempt to cool down. We’ve shucked any plans that involve fun and team-building and climate-enhancing physical activity because it would only increase core body temperature beyond its dangerous current state. We’ve also either found creative ways to teach kids to write while anchoring their paper amidst 5 whirring, oscillating fans, or deleted that activity altogether. 

We teachers wake at 4 in the morning thinking, “What can I possibly do today that will engage my kids and teach them anything but tolerance for suffering heat and humidity?” All the usual tricks are rendered worthless. We cannot run, we cannot laugh, we cannot focus, we cannot learn which classmates we’d like to be friends with, and we certainly can’t read, write, or compute. Because we are miserable.

Today, my classroom was 86º at dismissal time; obviously, it was higher at high noon. My teammate who is directly above me was a flat 90º. That feels like 100º when you factor in a dew point of 76º and 29.82 Hg pressure and 65% humidity. I’ve included all that data because I believe in hard science. “Headline news” is not sufficient. “They’ll handle it” is not enough science for the story. But it is all that they tell you. I’m writing this to tell you more.

I’m writing to tell you that our un-air conditioned school had parents purchasing industrial fans for their kids’ classrooms. I’m writing to tell you that parents’ sneaked by the district’s anti-obesity/wellness initiatives to bring in ice cream sandwiches and Free-zees to classrooms under the hawk-like radar of those who guard and assert the official policy. (These parents are smart enough to distinguish the letter of the law from the spirit of it.) I’m writing to tell you that some parents were conscientious objectors who kept their kids home after agonizingly weighing the costs and benefits of their decision. I’m writing to challenge all of our ideas of equity and “putting children first”.

According to online searches, 18 MPS schools do not have air conditioning. I’d like to see a list of which schools they are. Why? Because my school DOES have air conditioning—in the office, in the teachers’ lounge, and in the computer lab. See how that works? If you don’t ask enough questions, you might fall for a half-truth and be led to believe something that isn’t really true. $20 says my school would be considered “air conditioned” by my district. (I have my reasons, but they are tangential to this letter.) My students were able to enjoy a half-hour of air-conditioned comfort (in the teachers’ lounge, thanks to a big-hearted others-focused teacher). The remaining 6 hours they suffered in what science says “feels like 100º F”. 

Tell me this is just. Tell me this is equitable. Tell me this is putting children first. 

The district offices are air-conditioned to the point of nearly being suitable for hanging sides of beef–I know; I’ve spent a few days of staff development at the Davis Center just prior to having kids in my classroom and I was goose-bumped. The public announcement of the district giving water and fans to classrooms is laughable in comparison. For one thing, the water was a day later than proclaimed in the papers. And although it may have arrived technically “cold”, by the time the poor custodians delivered it (above and beyond their call of duty) to all the classrooms, it was luke-warm and made no positive impact. Except maybe for PR purposes.

I am writing this with fear. I fear I will be reprimanded for not being a “valiant” teacher who “handles it” without complaint. Dang it, I AM valiant. I fight for these kids every day. I love them. I delight in them and I am irritated by them. And I strive to make them become the best they can be. And I doubt there will ever be a “standard” written that says that that, at its core, is what a real teacher does. 

I am no dunce. I know this is a political world. I try to teach this to my kids. I try to teach them to be loving, and forgiving, and courageous. I try to teach them to stand up for what is right.

People, this is not right! None of us would willfully put ourselves or our children into a 100º classroom and expect them to learn, engage, or be happy about their new year in school. Frankly, if you went through what my students and I went through, you would call it something akin to torture.

Lots of people say, “Oh! I love summer! I love the heat!” And I would wager most of them have air conditioning at home. And I would ante the entire bank and mortgage that they wouldn’t say that if they had 28 kids (37 kids if you teach 4th grade in my building) in a classroom AND were expected to teach to the standards AND were trying to establish a positive climate in their homeroom AND had a district official that glibly said, “They can handle it” while other schools in our district attempted to meet these goals in air-conditioned comfort. 

Equity is an issue that is discussed in all political arenas, and schools are political arenas, despite the happy apples and cutesiness associated with us primary teachers. I am expected to provide an equitable education to all my students, regardless of their backgrounds, regardless of my personal or professional resources. Why is it that the same expectation is not placed upon the Minneapolis Public Schools district office? Why, on August 20th instead of busing teachers to a frigidly air-conditioned Mariucci Arena (at likely a sizeable cost) is that discretionary money spent in making even 2 schools air conditioned for unseasonable temperatures? Is this really that unreasonable a request?

Would the district office mandate all its employees show up for a full day’s work in an un-air conditioned office at the 1-year-old and beautifully designed Davis Center?

Career suicide this may be. But don’t give me platitudes about “Children First!” or any such nonsense while this is the reality of those of us in the trenches–your kids and their teachers. Tomorrow is the first day of kindergarten. A brick building like ours is basically a kiln; it retains heat. This will be their first memory of school. But no worries. “We’ll handle it.”

[Editor's note: This post was first published on Mike Templeton's Facebook page on August 27, and is republished here with his permission.]

  • We are struggling with this issue in the Iowa City School District. Around half of our schools are not air-conditioned. We have had early dismissal all week. Talked to someone on Tuesday whose kids go to an air-conditioned school who was very irritated by the inconvenience of early dismissal, who said "it just for a few days a year, what is the big fuss? And why do they have to early-dismiss the kids whose schools ARE air-conditioned?". So: some kids deserve climate controlled schools and some don't? Some kids get to be in school and some don't? Steve Kotvis, the cost or air-conditioning any older elementary school can be in the multiple MILLIONS of dollars. No joke. And no teacher can effectively teach over the sound of a window unit or fans. - by Janet Clark on Fri, 08/30/2013 - 7:41am
  • I would love to see this also published in the Star Tribune. Mike, we and your students are lucky to have you! - by Allison Ruby on Thu, 08/29/2013 - 10:01am
  • Excellent and brave post by a caring and strong teacher. We need more like you, and I sincerely hope you face zero negative repercussions for your honesty. Thank you!! - by Mary Andrews Hanson on Thu, 08/29/2013 - 6:45am
  • If we understand the problem, that many MPS schools do not have AC that creates an impossible teaching environment, what are the possible solutions? Those that come to mind include: A.) Don't operate schools on days where the heat is too high (the approach that is taken by the Minnesota State High School League in their scheduling of sporting events). Then what is done about "make-up days? Add them to the end of the school year? Add them to vacation days? B.) Install ACs in schools that need them. How many are we talking about? The paper says 27. Assuming the idea that the district is understating this number, let's say it's between 27 and 50? What is the cost installing central or window ACs into these schools? Maybe something like $200,000 to $1 million per school? (I don't know, but many of these are older buildings that would require significant work to install ACs.) So we're looking at a range of about $5 to $10 million in capital improvements. And where might we look for that money? I thought I heard about a capital fund at the federal level to improve schools. Not sure if that is still available. If federal is not available, what about state funds? Might be tough to pass in our legislature that would look at Minneapolis as getting yet more. Or raise property taxes. But in the public eye, does AC sound like a luxury? Would it pass a public vote? Just thinking out loud here. Other thoughts? - by Steve Kotvis on Thu, 08/29/2013 - 7:53am
  • Good job, Mike. This is such a pathetic look at how Minneapolis treats its future. Bernedeia Johnson is a flat out idiot, and an expensive one at that. Yes, I agree with you on the Davis Center. I'm sure they are very comfortable in their air conditioned environment. I just learned, to my horror, that the high school graduation rate in Minneapolis is less than 50%. This is a shame and a disgrace, and shows where the priorities in our city lie. Let's stop hiring more administrators, cut the salaries of those we have, and put some money into sound and safe infrastructure, more teachers and support staff. Let's give a great education to every child in our city, because they deserve it and because they will be better equipped to make good decisions about themselves and their environment. They are being cheated out of a future when they receive a poor education because of the greed of those who hold the purse strings and make the decisions. The school board, Mayor Rybak and the City Council should be ashamed because they all have a part in this sad story. It extends even further than that, to the people who steal money from the taxpayers to buy stadiums for billionaires. That would be the Hennepin County Commissioners and the legislature, and even Governor Dayton. - by Janet Nye on Thu, 08/29/2013 - 12:53am
  • This is a brave teacher speaking out. Kids are at school to learn. That is their job. If we don't have an environment where that can happen, they don't belong there. You know where kids without AC should be on a 100 degree day? At the lake. Or a pool. Or a basement with a fan. They absolutely do not belong in brick ovens. It serves no purpose whatsoever to expect that of them. It's tantamount to expecting them to stand and wait for a school bus when it's -20 F, or to function in a classroom with the heat off in winter. Can they survive it? Yes. Should they have to? No! What on earth is the point? If they're aren't in an environment where learning can happen, they shouldn't be there. It's time to ask who was served by these poor decisions. - by Nikki Nafziger on Thu, 08/29/2013 - 9:45am
  • This was our experience at a non-air conditioned south side school in Minneapolis. It is simple unbelievable! - by Margaret Preston on Thu, 08/29/2013 - 11:48am

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Mike Templeton's picture
Mike Templeton

Mike Templeton is a teacher in Minneapolis.


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Excuses Excuses

Excuses will not help kids become the best people they can be. I went to a MPLS High School without air conditioning for 3 years, and despite the poor efforts of the teachers I actually learned a lot. I learned I can't rely on you glorified wetnurses working for the 1% to give me a good education. What we need to do is stop coddling these kids and teach above and beyond the standards. Reduceclass sizes then we'll hear your trivial complaints.