Back to school, talking about teachers


by Kate Towle | August 30, 2009 • As we begin school this fall, my thoughts turn to our Minneapolis teachers who are at the heart of our student performance.


As per the recent New Teacher Project Survey (May 2009):

  • MPS’ dramatically declining student enrollment is creating high instability for teachers and schools (MPS has experienced a 5% average drop in enrollment each year, a 28% decline since 2001;
  • The MPS teacher workforce has also decreased in size, from 2,435 to 2,072 in the last four years, a 15% drop;
  • The average district turnover in MPS schools over the last three years is 21%, with every single school losing over 1/5 of its faculty each year;
  • MPS is #1 of urban districts studied by the New Teacher Project, with 16% of its teachers displaced each year, compared to 3.5% in New York City and 1% in Chicago.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

All Learning, All the Time – This multi-author Daily Planet blog includes writing by community members about education issues.


Within this climate, Andreas Schleicher from the International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) spoke of a legacy of isolation of American teachers and the increase in student performance when those closest to the students, teachers, are allowed less distractions and more focus on the needs of students within their classrooms.


Another issue:  in a district with approximately ¾ students of color, our district only has 10% teachers of color.  


The reasons for that are many and varied, but black educators I’ve spoken with over-function to serve both their students and to act as liaisons and leaders for their communities.  They are pulled in many directions and asked to serve on many committees to better integrate those committees.  They are in high demand and are recruited by neighboring districts.  While I can’t speak for our teachers of color, I can imagine the struggle they have to see children from their own communities disproportionately ending up in special education, poverty, detention, remedial courses and the criminal justice system.  Such teachers live in two worlds, their professional world and a world where housing, employment, health care, transportation and education services have long favored dominant culture—and the wealthy.  The majority leave the profession after five years.


All of our teachers have stories to tell that are simply astounding:  Stories of what it’s like when children come to school committed to reading after witnessing a murder; of what it’s like to be there for our 1/6 of students who are homeless, who have no regular bed to sleep in, when 35+ other students are tapping on your shoulder;  of what it’s like to have a class discussion and to have a student share his amazement that his own father was on the news for bank robbery;  to have a young teenage student change her bra in class, or need to leave class to check on her own child’s well-being.


Our teachers arrive at class, perhaps at 6:30-7:00 in the morning, and they have until 3:00-4:00 pm to impact their students lives.  The teachers I speak to rarely eat, they’re fortunate if they get something to drink; they have no time for reflection and for those 8-9 hours of work (with homework checking at night), they are hit by a barrage of student needs.  And colleague’s needs, principal requests, and district initiatives and paperwork.  If they are fortunate, they will get time with their colleagues.  Or their own spouses and children.  They cannot guarantee that they will be at their school from one year to the next, or if their school will survive.  Yet, they know that children with no homes and stability need one critical factor in their lives:  adult stability.


I hear often about “bad” teachers.  I have talked to a teacher evaluator from the University of Minnesota who says that most of our teachers are highly skilled and tend to achieve high results with our students within the parameters of matters they can control, i.e. calming and engaging students, helping them increase their reading or math proficiency, helping them learn to the fullest extent while they are in class.  However, there are increasingly factors that our teachers cannot control:  growing poverty, hunger, violence, teen pregnancy, rising mental health issues in families, the growing gap between poor and wealthy.


The star teachers in charter, private and public schools are willing to do whatever it takes to meet children’s needs.  That means that they work over 15 hours a day, often 24/7, with a few hours to sleep.   The phenomenal teacher leaders across the country, including David Domenici from Washington, D.C., sacrifice their lives to the cause of education.  Many could care less about their salaries:  they are pulled in by their deep commitment to their students.  I have seen situations where this type of climate has been even harder on teachers of color; highly seasoned, but older teachers;  and teachers with families and children.  Our younger teachers are not being given the time or circumstances to mentor alongside seasoned professionals.  During the Great Depression, teachers (mostly, if not all, women) were not allowed to get married or have children.  Teaching was their whole life.  But this is not a sustainable model, and it’s not one that will increase staff stability for our children over time.  Teacher turnover is an issue in public, charter and private schools.


We would be wise to find ways that: 


  1. Teachers can continue to team together to multiply each other’s strengths;
  2. Teachers are given a greater say in what they do that positively impacts children and play a greater role in systemic change (this would include cultivating some teacher leaders for School Board leadership);
  3. Teachers are not only given on-going training, but on-going support; and
  4. We work to define what are best practices that allow teachers to magnify their skills.


In the book “Influencers” by Kerry Patterson et al, Dr. Ethna Reid who studied teachers in Salt Lake City, found that there were 2 behaviors out of a list of one hundred, that identified which teachers were sure to positively impact children.  One of the vital behaviors was the use of praise versus the use of punishment.  Top performers reward positive performance far more frequently than their counterparts.  The best consistently reinforced even moderately good performance, and learning flourished.  The other vital behavior was that top performers alternated, quickly, between teaching and questioning or otherwise testing.  They kept a pulse on how their students were doing..  When necessary, they made immediate corrections.  They were able to self-examine.


I want to move us from labeling teachers to thinking about ways that we, as parents and the public, can be supportive to classroom learning.  How about if we start by evaluating teachers the way we want our children evaluated?  Are our teachers aware of what they are doing well and validated for that?  Are we providing the support, right questions and meaningful feedback to help them succeed, making immediate corrections in our system when needed?  Are we able to look at every part of our system to identify where we can all do better?


As school begins, I ask that we influence the dialogue in such a way that we can bring out the best of our teachers, laud them for their tireless work, and multiply what is working for all students.