E-DEMOCRACY | Teachers, experience and the education narrative


Comments in this discussion thread refer to Steve Brandt’s article in the Star Tribune, “Poorest Mpls. schools still have greenest teachers.”

From: Connie Sullivan Date: 8:09pm, Mar 23

In this article there was an implicit demand of experienced teachers that they sacrifice themselves–their mental and emotional well-being, their physical safety, their sense of self, their time and wasted effort–for the benefit of bad schools in poverty-ridden parts of Minneapolis.

In what other business or occupation is it seen as normal to ask such sacrifices from employees? That they willingly seek out the worst work environment their employer can provided, and expend all their life forces in it?

Experienced teachers, who seek out safer schools that are better run and whose students have parents who don’t send kindergartners and first-graders to school with wildly disruptive behaviors, are in the article blamed for the fact that poor-area schools have more inexperienced teachers.

What was missing from the article? Any indication of the kind of troubled kids and their outrageous behaviors our public school teachers must deal with, on a daily basis. Every once in a while a teacher will write a piece for a blog, etc., about their daily lives in our public schools, how hard it is (try looking at the third season of “The Wire,” which is I think the one that focused on Baltimore’s dysfunctional school system, to get some understanding of how tough it is to teach poor inner-city kids.) Or the Strib will take that subject up briefly. But those realities get left out of a discussion that again and again finds ways to blame the teachers for the whole mess of our public schools.

It’s not the fault of experienced teachers that they prefer a work environment that functions, and that lets them function effectively. Where they’re not constantly having to watch their back, literally.

Of course, they get out of bad schools as quickly as they can! So would you.

This article implies that experienced teachers should not be allowed to choose to teach in our best-run public schools. I shake my head in wonder.

Connie Sullivan
Como, in East Minneapolis

From: Brian Stricherz Date: 8:41pm, Mar 23

What is a school’s primary purpose? I would assume it is to teach children and to do so without systemic economic/racial bias. How is the disparity outlined in the article (and it has been outlined here at e-democracy for some time) even remotely defensible? The disparity in teacher experience between poor and wealthy schools is absurd. Is it any wonder so many kids from the North Minneapolis attend charter schools or suburban schools? That isn’t benefical to MPS or taxpayers. Minneapolis is divided into its own Twin Cities: South Minneapolis and North Minneapolis. Maybe we should put the least experienced cops, firemen, road repair worker, and paramedics in North Minneapolis while we are at it. I’m a strong believer in unions and worker rights, but not at the expense of serving the community, which presumably is their primary function.

And to those who are calling out parents: what say so do the parents have in how much experience their teacher has? Mr. Brandt’s article was laden with facts. If there’s a dispute with the facts, please point out the flaws rather than assail the man.

Brian Stricherz

From: Joe Nathan Date: 8:47pm, Mar 23

No teachers should be forced to teach in a school where they don’t want to teach. But we might provide incentives (as school districts currently do, for example so teachers will take additional classes and professional development) to encourage people to teach at schools with high percentages of low income youngsters.

Having taught at some of those urban public schools, by choice, instead of suburban schools, I think we should be seeking to encourage a mix of faculty at schools in challenging neighborhoods. We might also increased shared facilities so more organizations are co-locating in these schools, – and learn other lessons from outstanding district & charter public schools successfully working with these young people.

From: Dan McGuire Date: 9:51pm, Mar 23

I think Brandt did a decent job on this article. The implication that it’s the teachers’ fault was voiced by Don Samuels, who has zero experience in public schools; serving on the city council doesn’t provide special insight into public school staffing.

The point of this article is that getting rid of seniority in the transfer of teachers made things worse, not better. The administration’s strategy made things worse, not better. Who’s accountable for that?

This is a management issue. The district needs really good, experienced principals in all schools and they need to get and keep stable, competent, experienced staff in all positions. The tragedy is that the MPS has so far failed to do that. This is not a new, revolutionary concept. This is an administrative failure. Who will be accountable?

From: David Tilsen Date: 10:58pm, Mar 23

It might be instructive to compare the way we view the teaching profession with a couple of other professional occupations. Let’s look at doctors and lawyers. In a lawyer’s office the new (inexperienced) lawyers get mentored by the most experienced lawyers. The most experienced lawyers take the most difficult cases, sometimes with a less experienced lawyer acting as second or third chair. It is several years (kind of like a probationary period) before the newest lawyers are allowed to take on a case without the more experienced lawyer supervising and advising and teaching. One of the very experienced lawyers is put in charge (managing partner) and takes the most difficult cases as well as supervising and teaching the other lawyers.

In the case of doctor’s in a hospital, again, the most experienced doctor’s take the most difficult cases. Here any failure of any doctor calls for a review of the case before all of the staff. Not so much to point fingers and blame, but to review the decisions and procedures followed in the case and to allow all of the doctor’s to learn from the failure.

Now let’s look at this discussion. Constance Sullivan expresses the feeling that asking experienced teachers to take the hardest cases would be an implicit demand to, and I am quoting now “sacrifice themselves–their mental and emotional well-being, their physical safety, their sense of self, their time and wasted effort–for the benefit of bad schools in poverty-ridden parts of Minneapolis”

Now I think that Ms. Sullivan should stop watching so much lifetime TV and actually spend some time in our schools. If there is a teacher that believes that their time is wasted, and their mental, and emotional well-being, not to mention their physical safety is in jeopardy from teaching in our schools, then they are truly part of the problem, not part of the solution and have no business being anywhere near any of our children.

Actually I have a lot more confidence in the professionalism of our teachers and the safety and management of our schools than does Ms. Sullivan buy her comments do serve to demonstrate the kind of knee jerk racism that is prevalent when thinking about the schools in Minneapolis. Certainly anyone who thinks a teacher’s time is wasted in a “poverty ridden part of Minneapolis” does not believe that it is possible to reduce the achievement gap. In fact that person (or teacher) needs to have the opposite position. They need to see the students in their classroom as possible teachers, artists, lawyers, leaders, engineers, architects etc. If you don’t see that in the students in your class, but instead see spending time with them as “wasted effort” again, Ms. Sullivan’s words not mine, then how do you expect the students turn out anything different than what you expect them to, whatever that is.

These attitudes are born from watching too much scripted TV and Faux news, written by people with an agenda, an agenda of fear, prejudice and ignorance.

This attitude is a slander to our students, our teachers and our school system.

Steve Brandt’s excellent article pointed out some areas that need work, but also pointed out that the problem was not the seniority system or the union. This kind of discussion speaks no shouts that the problem is very deep in our community.

“If we accept the premise that all of our children are endowed with the full range of abilities, intellectual and otherwise, regardless of race, than the continued disparity in achievement in our schools must be attributed, at least in part to racism.” – From the report of the Education Task Force of the Minneapolis Initiative Against Racism, chair David Tilsen, 1990.

From: Dan McGuire Date: 4:11am, Mar 24

I thought about Steve Brandt’s article so more and think it’s more than just decent. It’s actually a brilliant piece of writing. It’s based on facts – facts that the MPS Board of Directors and administration should have been aware of and should have presented to the citizens of Minneapolis before they appeared in a newspaper article. The facts in the article contradict the frequent rants on the Strib editorial page over the past few years. Getting rid of seniority actually made things worse – a direct challenge to the unfounded opinions of Strib editors and the McKinsey and Co. led reformers who champion TFA and charter schools. It was an especially nice touch that Brandt used the silly statement by Samuels as a foil for the facts. That, and the unwitting comment of the district’s executive director of human “capital” (that must be a McKinsey and Co term) who sounded as if she just showed up on the job and was unaware of the district’s history over the last twenty years or so as the issue of inexperienced teachers in poor schools has continued to plague the district. It should really come as no surprise that the district doesn’t value teaching experience and institutional history; the turnover in the administration has been unbelievably high over the last 5 years, at least. The leadership of Teaching and Learning at the district is made up of people who have very little classroom experience and people who have very little experience in the MPS. Being a former McKinsey and Co employee, or working in Macon, Georgia for a couple of years doesn’t qualify someone to lead teachers in the MPS.

Nice work, Steve.

From: Julie Sabo Date: 1:21pm, Mar 24

Before market based models dominated public education, I began teaching in North Minneapolis. I was hired in 1990 and stayed in that same school for ten years. It was a school with a poverty rate of 99%. But poverty was just one factor impacting my students’ lives. Domestic violence, abuse, family drug use, gangs, gun violence, knife fights, house fires, mental health issues, parents’ deaths, removal from families into shelter or foster care, homelessness, and aunts and grandmothers committed to raising multiple sibling groups (At a time when county respite care for these women was being slashed), were just some of the other stressors students would arrive at school with. Poverty only began to tell the story of stress in their young lives. But the kids also had tremendous strengths interests and abilities we were able to capitalize on! For ten years I worked with committed, talented teachers dedicated to educating our students, a time I absolutely treasure. A time I learned, more than I ever could have imagined, as I taught.

That school was closed, along with so many other schools in North Minneapolis with senior staffs. Now, unlike in the 1990’s, schools function under policies that are based on competition and choice, often referred to as corporate reform. Not just for families, but also for teachers. And in this system of competition, success for students and teachers is defined by standardized testing. The testing gap between different students correlates closely with students’ socio-economic status, and tends to confirm existing social patterns of economic inclusion rather than challenge them. Students who “have” tend to benefit from the competition model above those who “do not have” the valued commodity, in the corporate model of education reform, that is test scores. So, students who can provide that product have the power within the market model. Advantaged students attract teachers because teachers in poorer schools, like their students, are disadvantaged in this market-based testing model.

The belief was that competition based on closely monitored testing would motivate or “incent” teachers to better address the educational needs of disadvantaged students. But instead it has incentivized more segregation between advantaged and disadvantaged students making the choice of where to teach more polarized as well.

If we want to attract teachers in a market model to more challenging students, ignoring chaotic school cultures, threatening teachers with rank or yank testing policies, micro-managing their classrooms with standardized paced curriculum, and burdening them with yokes of accountability mandates doesn’t seem to be a great way to do it. These teachers need to have stable, intellectually safe school cultures, more support systems for children experiencing emotional distress, more planning time, and fewer students, as suggestions to begin with. Teachers must be encouraged and empowered to become real problem solvers on behalf of their students within a collaborative team, not alone in their room. These schools need to be places where BOTH children and teachers are supported, valued, and empowered. Where stress is alleviated, not aggravated. If schools cultivate collaboration, not competition, empower teachers, rather than foster professional helplessness, and truly support our more vulnerable students, not with additional test prep, but with the kind of quality programs we would want for our own children. Teachers will come to teach. They don’t stay away because of the children; they stay away because of factors controlled by adults.

From: Jay Clark Date: 6:40pm, Mar 24

As I read Steve Brandt’s Star Tribune story and the debate here, a question kept popping into my head: of the teachers with fewer years of experience in higher poverty schools, how many spoke languages such as Somali, Oromo, Hmong, Laotian and Spanish?

I suspect that teachers with two years experience are on average much more likely to speak the native languages of immigrant students than those teachers with 22 years experience.

I also suspect that immigrant students tend to be in higher poverty schools, and we need teachers capable of speaking the immigrant student’s native language in those schools.

I watched a sickening ritual played out each year at Jordan Park school, with mostly Hmong immigrant students: Hmong speaking teachers new to teaching and with low seniority would be hired in the fall, then many/most of them would get pink slips in the spring. Some of these teachers would be rehired over the summer time, but many never came back to MPS, and many of those ended up at charter schools, bringing former students with them.

High poverty high immigrant schools need bilingual teachers who speak the native languages of their students and know their culture, even if those teachers are not as high on the seniority and experience list.

Jay Clark

From: Joe Nathan Date: 10:20pm, Mar 24

Several points.
1. Jay Clark is correct that there are great inner city schools serving high % of youngsters. One of the keys to outstanding performance is having a number of staff who are bi or tri-lingual.
2. Regarding the idea of providing options – Minneapolis began doing this in the early 1970’s – it was rightly viewed as a way to recognize that not all young people learn in the same way, and that educator as professionals should have options too. So for example, some youngsters do better in a more informal, Montessori school (and some faculty prefer that approach). Some youngsters do better in a more structured, traditional school and some faculty prefer that approach. This was (and I think should be regarded as a child-centered, rather than a “corporate” approach to public education.
3. Teachers in those schools were allowed within broad limits to develop ways to help youngsters achieve their potential.
4. In some places, having social service agencies sharing space with schools has helped young people be more successful.
5. We still have examples of outstanding district & charter options that are succeeding in helping bring low income and limited English speaking students up to achievement levels of much more affluent youngsters. They don’t use a single approach. They are available if people want to learn from them.

E-Democracy forum posts are republished under license by Creative Commons with Attribution. There were 20 posts on this topic as of Tuesday, March 25, 2014. See entire discussion thread here.