Who's teaching in Minnesota? Licensure, language complicate St. Paul principal's search for teachers

Principal Melisa Rivera started in September to look for next year’s staff. It’s just that difficult to find elementary-level licensed teachers that are fluent and literate not only in English and Spanish, but in the academic versions of each language.

“It is a big ordeal,” Rivera said.

This article is part of a series that will examine the requirements Minnesotans must meet to become teachers, the ways in which training programs are changing, and the people they continue to leave out. For related stories, go to Who's teaching in Minnesota? We begin with a set of conversations with staff at Riverview Elementary, a St. Paul school that recently launched a two-way Spanish-English immersion program. 

Last year St. Paul Public Schools went so far as to take a trip to Puerto Rico to find the staff Rivera needed. The trip resulted in the recruitment of three new teachers, who are now working at Riverview elementary school on the west side of St. Paul while wrapping up Minnesota’s notoriously tough licensure requirements. Puerto Rico is easier to deal with than other Spanish-speaking locales, since residents don’t need a visa to work in the states. It’s also Rivera’s island of origin.

Three more members of Rivera’s staff are teaching under something called Community Expert permissions. They are each working towards their licensure but have not yet completed it. “Why the need to have them is we couldn’t find anybody,” said Rivera.

“It’s the state license that is the issue. Their requirements are so, so over the top,” said Rivera. “Everybody takes Minnesota licensed teachers, but Minnesota doesn’t take anybody.”

“It’s a system set on whiteness. This is what you do; this is the paper. It’s very white,” Rivera said. “You have all these guidelines and procedures that are so embedded in what the white world is.”

Finding any new teacher who is not white or female or whose first language is something other than English is incredibly challenging in Minnesota. Last year, people of color made up less than one in seven St. Paul Public Schools teachers.

The paperwork, the testing, the portfolio work keeps people of color, and the bilingual Spanish and English speakers her program needs, from becoming teachers, Rivera said.

To become a principal, she recalled spending weeks putting in writing just about everything she’s learned throughout her life and education. “That took me forever. Have I used that? Have I really used that to be a principal? Oh my goodness, no. I never used that.”

Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.

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    Alleen Brown's picture
    Alleen Brown

    Alleen Brown (alleenbrown [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net or Twitter @AlleenBrown) is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.