The system sucks, according to Mary Deitchler’s math students. They are outraged because Deitchler is among the 143 teachers reluctantly terminated by St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) at the end of the school year. Budget problems mandated the terminations, and principals and administrators might agree with the students’ verdict.
Deitchler taught Integrated Math 3 and 4 at Central High School, the equivalent of geometry and pre-calculus, and also two algebra support classes. Deitchler has taught for decades in colleges, high schools and junior high in two states. Her teaching time has accommodated five children and her husband’s career, so, despite her M.A. and extensive experience, she finished the school year one day short of attaining tenure in SPPS.
That one day makes a crucial difference — non-tenured teachers can be let go for any reason or no reason at all. So, although Deitchler has a master’s degree and decades of teaching experience, although she has completed all requirements for tenure, the lack of one day means she is out of a job, with no reason needed and no appeal possible.
Deitchler’s near-tenure could even be a reason for termination. In deciding which of the system’s approximately 385 non-tenured teachers to let go, SPPS had to weigh financial impact. Tenure would mean more job protection. Deitchler’s master’s degree makes her more expensive. Both of those could be factors in the decision-making.
Deitchler’s students say she is a star.
Full disclosure: The author of this story is the parent of one of Deitchler’s students.
“I’m really upset about her departure,” said Kevin Leach, a senior at Central next year. “She was one of the best math teachers we’ve had. She knew how to handle the class well. There were probably 40 kids in the class and she was kind and easy to relate to, as well as teaching math well, which she did. … I got most of my mathematical intelligence and determination in that class.” Moreover, said Leach, “Given the fact that the schools are short of math and science teachers, to lay off more teachers is absurd.”
In fact, schools are so short of science and math teachers that SPPS has partnered with Hamline University in an accelerated program to recruit and train non-traditional candidates to teach math and science (and bilingual education and special education.) Some 34 of the remaining SPPS non-tenured teachers are the lower-paid “teaching fellows” enrolled in this program.
Math classes at Central High School are not easy for students or teachers. The mandate, according to Deitchler, is to teach no math level below algebra. She taught Integrated Math 3 and 4 — roughly equivalent to geometry and pre-calculus, and two of the smaller algebra support classes for students who needed extra help. (These have now been dropped, according to Deitchler.)
Math classes at Central are large. The geometry classes, mostly incoming ninth graders, started with more than 40 students last September, but dwindled down to 36 or 38 by the end of the school year. Pre-calc classes still had more than 40 students in June. (In contrast, the University of Minnesota tells incoming students that no calculus class will have more than 20 students.)
“In general, there are too many people in the math classes, and this year was especially bad,” said Macy Salzberger, who will be a senior at Central next year. “Bigger classes would be outrageous. I couldn’t make my way to the Kleenex box in the classroom because there were so many people.”
Salzberger, who took the pre-calc IM-4 class this year, said Deitchler “did a good job. It was never too rowdy and she could always demonstrate things on the board and she was almost always instructing us, rather than the classes going crazy as they theoretically work in groups.”
Leach agrees, saying that Deitchler “did a good job of maintaining order in the classroom.” He also appreciates her connection with students, noting that with so many students, “Math teachers constantly have to look at their schedules to remember students’ names – that’s been my entire experience with math teachers, not knowing who you are. But she was different – she knew my name, and that made it easier to ask questions and get help. Just being able to relate to her was important.”
Sarah Gemlo, who will be a senior next year, calls Deitchler “an awesome teacher.” Gemlo says she struggled with the pre-calc classwork, but that Deitchler “went out of her way to make sure I was doing all right.”
Gemlo’s mom, Libby Snelson, also praises Deitchler, noting that the teacher was “extremely responsive by telephone and email both.” Snelson said that Deitchler had helped her daughter through struggles with the coursework, and then “Mary Deitchler telephoned me on a Sunday afternoon to tell me Sarah had done well on the final. I have three kids in school and I don’t think a teacher has ever telephoned me with good news. … She’s been just fabulous.”
Getting the termination notice hit Deitchler hard. She still had to get through the last weeks of school, with students, finals, and graduation. And she had to tell her students that she would not be back next year.
“I promised myself I’d never cry in front of my students,” she said, so she kept putting off telling them. “My homeroom was juniors and they were the toughest to tell. All year, I’d been saying to them, make sure you have your credits, make sure your attendance is good. I can’t wait to walk you through graduation [in 2010]. And to tell them I won’t be there next year to do that …
“One of my students cornered me one day by saying: ‘Mrs. Deitchler, they’re making us split into a separate homeroom next year if we’re full IB students. Can you please ask special permission so we can come back to this advisory twice a week.’ I tried to ignore her. She pressed it. ‘Did you hear me? Could you please ask special permission for us to come back? We don’t want to walk through graduation with a different homeroom.’
“I had to tell her I’m not going to be here.”
Deitchler will miss her students, her colleagues and Central High School.
“I always considered Central such a primo place to work,” Deitchler said in an interview a few days after the last day of school. “I had heard of Central since I was little. My mom was a math teacher in Rochester – I heard about it growing up.
“I subbed at Central for a while back in 1990, and I always knew it was really a good place to be in the math department. So when the job came up, I was like, ‘Wow! Pick me!’ … There are such good people in that math department. … The experience there has been great.”
Deitchler will probably return to college teaching in the fall.
Mary Turck is the editor of the Twin Cities Daily Planet.
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