Who's teaching in Minnesota? Getting through the first year

Your first years as a teacher can be hard ones. Some estimates say half drop out of the profession within five years. At Riverview school in St. Paul a strong support system of literacy and math coaches, veteran teachers, and peers keeps first-year teachers Ada Perez and Alex McCoy hanging in there.

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 dual, two-way immersion program.

McCoy teaches in Riverview’s English-language program. He got there via two of Minnesota’s 31 institutions of higher education that offer teacher training programs, earning an undergraduate degree at St. Thomas before moving on to Hamline University for his masters in education.

Enter any given classroom in Minnesota, and you can assume the teacher you find there completed a training program, like the one at Hamline, that was approved by the governor-appointed state Board of Teaching. If that teacher earned their degree in another state, then the state education department approved them individually to teach in local classrooms.

You’ve got to get a liberal arts bachelor’s degree before you teach in Minnesota. You must work full-time as a student teacher for at least ten weeks to prove that you can teach at the licensure level in a real classroom. On top of that, you must volunteer and practice delivering lessons throughout your training program, working with diverse students, including ones in special education and ones who are learning English.

All of this will be arranged through your licensure program. The program might be embedded into an undergraduate degree, or it might be a master’s in education.

For some, the hardest part comes last. You’ve got to complete the Minnesota Teacher Licensure Exams (MTLEs) and turn in a portfolio-based Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA).

The edTPA is new. In 2011 state legislators decided that a performance-based assessment like it must be used by all teacher preparation program. You submit lesson plans, student assessments, assignments, reflections, and video of yourself teaching.

The MTLEs are not new. You must sit down for around seven tests that each take at least one hour. They include reading, writing and math tests, a two-part pedagogy test that assesses whether you know how to teach, and usually a two- or three- part content test in your subject of expertise.

Each costs $25 to $35 plus other fees. You can take them multiple times, but there’s a waiting period between each re-take, and you must pay each time. The board of teaching commonly grants temporary licenses for new teachers to start working before they pass the reading, writing or math tests, but you must pass within three years.

Perez was recruited from a small town in central Puerto Rico to work in Riverview’s dual Spanish-English immersion program. In Minnesota, there is no dearth of elementary education teachers looking for work, but there are few who can teach fluently in English and Spanish. When Riverview’s three recruited Puerto Rican teachers came to Minnesota, they had to complete the MTLEs as well as any other coursework that the Board of Teaching deemed necessary to bring them up to Minnesota’s standards.

Perez and McCoy are finding their first year at Riverview both challenging and rewarding. The two teachers recently sat down with the Daily Planet to discuss why they became teachers, what has surprised them most, and how training programs could better prepare teachers to enter the classroom. Below is a lightly edited transcript of their interview.

Tell me about why you each went into teaching, what you love about teaching.

McCoy: I worked at a basketball camp and always enjoyed working with kids. When I went off to college I wanted to be a pediatrician—and then I took chemistry. I have a lot of teachers in my family, so I was really trying to stray away from that. Then I slowly started finding out that that was what my passion was for, so I ended up becoming a teacher.

Perez: It happened the same way. I was surrounded—my mom is a teacher, my aunt is a teacher—and I wanted to be a vet. But when I got to chemistry, I said, ‘Uh-uh, this is not for me.’ I started studying biology, because I still wanted to be a vet, but then I started taking care of kids in the afternoon as my first job. My mom said, ‘You’re good with kids. Why don’t you study to be a teacher?’ I said, ‘Weeell let’s try.’ I noticed that I really liked it, and I enjoyed it, and I loved it, and so I changed concentration, and here I am.

And, Ada, you travelled from Puerto Rico to work here. Tell me about how you got in touch with St. Paul Public Schools.

Perez: It was around March, and my husband was watching the news online. He saw the ad from St. Paul Public Schools that was going to recruit teachers, so he said, ‘You want to try it out?” And I said, ‘Well, let’s go.’ So I went to the interview, I said okay, and I’m here.

What has this first year been like for each of you? What has surprised you most or challenged you?

McCoy: I thought the behavior management piece would be the biggest challenge, and it wasn’t. It was all of the little things that you really have to do, the organizing your classroom, the assessments, whether they’re formal assessments or informal assessments, just there’s always a lot of little things to do. The day-to-day was a lot different, especially from my student teaching experience. I was in a school that had a large ELL population, so there were also ELL teachers in the classroom with us all the time, so there were a lot of adults in the room. Now it’s really just mostly me in the classroom.

Perez: Back home I didn’t have the coaches that we have here. I have a coach for literacy, for math. If I have a doubt or question, they’re here to help.

McCoy: They meet with every grade-level team twice a week to kind of talk about all the stuff that we’re talking about, how we teach. They give us ideas and resources.

Perez: Where I used to work we didn’t work with teams. It was just going, ‘Good morning. Take out your notebook. This is our work—work. If you finish, I’ll correct it.’ Here it’s more like a community. I can work with my groups. I can be with them more. We can have a whole discussion. Back home it was very different from the way we teach here. I really love what we do here. I get to talk more to the kids and share more than to just be in my desk and say, ‘Take out your notebook, page 5, and just write.’ I don’t like that. I like more, the talking.

Of the many lessons you learned in your teacher preparation program, what comes back to you as you’re teaching in your classroom?

McCoy: The thing that always comes back to me is my lesson planning stuff, divvying out the time that you need for certain things, really being down to the minute. That helped me out so much in planning my instruction.

Perez: It comes to my mind when I’m working with the kids, a professor that taught me, you have 20 kids, and you need to teach the same thing to everybody. But then you have to get specific with some kids, because they do not all learn the same thing at the same time. Every time that I need to do that, she comes to my mind. She knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

The demographics of St. Paul’s teachers are not very reflective of the student population. There are many more students of color than there are teachers of color and many more students whose first language is not English than there are teachers. Do you have any ideas about what would help support teachers of color and teachers who are fluent in another language enter the teaching field in the Twin Cities?

Perez: When I was in college, I would have preferred to have more experience in the classroom. When you get to the classroom, you have lots of work to do, more than you had to do in college. Maybe there’s a program for students to join more schools, just to see them and have the experience.

McCoy: In undergrad at St. Thomas and then in grad school at Hamline, we had to do practicum hours where we had to be there with a teacher. You usually observe in your first one, and then you maybe do one lesson here or there. You get to interact with the students to get a feel for if this is something that you want to do. That was a really nice option for somebody [who was considering becoming a teacher]. It also helped them see if that’s something they really wanted to do. But I feel like we could do a lot more of that earlier, and get people into the classroom.

Has the testing or portfolio work that you have to do to get a license in Minnesota been a challenge for either of you?

McCoy: Somewhat. The way that they’ve arranged the MTLE has been kind of a lot to keep up with. Some of my friends who have taken it have had trouble. I know some native Spanish speakers who did not pass. I think if there was more information out there, even study stuff, practice stuff, things that hopefully won’t cost you an arm and a leg, that would be very helpful.

Perez: Back home we only take one test. Just one test for your license, and here it’s a lot. I agree with Mr. McCoy. I’m from another place. Even though I know English, my main language is Spanish, so having more places to do guided reviews would help.

McCoy: Your first year is either a deterrent, or this is the thing that keeps you on track. This school has definitely been the thing that’s kept me on track, especially because we have a great community. Here, Ms. Perez teaches dual immersion, but she still helps me with materials, certain lessons. We all try to stay on the same page and go at the same pace, and so we’re able to give each other ideas and tell each other what works and what doesn’t. This school has been a real gift for me.

Perez: I agree. First this is a new place for me. Everything is new. I have no family here. In this new job I feel okay, like safe. If I have a doubt I’m not afraid to ask any questions. They’re very open. This week we were working with a number line, and I said, ‘How did you teach it, because I’m having difficulties.’ And [Mr. McCoy] said, ‘Oh, I taught it this way,’ and it worked. So it’s the team that we have that makes it easier to go with the flow.

So far it’s been great. I don’t regret anything.

Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.

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  • Brutal orgulloso de tener una hija professional y pasional de lo que hace, al final se trata de eso, diviertete en lo que haces baby! - by Eddie Perez on Mon, 12/09/2013 - 9:28pm
  • Super orgullosa de ti, eres excelente maestra, i love you, att: mom - by Addie Rios on Mon, 12/09/2013 - 9:43pm
  • It is very impressive to be chosen for an interview. I know I'm too shy for that. But with your shining personality, you held your own very well. I know that your school is very proud of you. So are we. - by Diana Rivera on Tue, 12/10/2013 - 6:40pm
  • Bienvenidos a Minnesota!! Muy elocuente, mucho éxito y que todo les valla muy bien por acá! - by Dorian Ramírez on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 2:28pm
  • That is so amazing Kristy, very proud of you!!! - by Maritza Blechinger on Mon, 12/09/2013 - 11:25pm
  • Kristel ....Te Felicito por tus logros !!!! Q disfrutes esta nueva etapa. TQM - by Mayra Mulero on Mon, 12/09/2013 - 10:43pm

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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.