I’ve been thinking about this idea of “bad teachers.” Are they really that bad? What are they doing that’s so bad? When I think back to my time in Minneapolis Public Schools, which I attended from 7-12th grade, I feel like I had a decent education.
There was Mrs. Levin, my pre-algebra teacher in seventh grade at Anwatin. I wasn’t very good at math, but she made me excited about it. She taught us that it wasn’t good enough to just do an assignment — you had to add “pizzazz” (her word). And Mr. Ceplecha, the army reserve geography teacher who taught his class as if we were in the army. I disagreed with him about everything, but he was successful in getting us all riled up about current events. There was Profesora Lloyd, who made me fall in love with the Spanish language (though subsequent Spanish teachers weren’t that great) and Mrs. Cornelius, who used to tell me that my stories made her cry, and insisted that I would be a writer when I grew up.
At South there was Mrs. Reed, who taught us the joys of Faulkner, and Mr. Kaari, who taught us how to support our arguments with facts, and Mr. Glock, who didn’t really teach me anything because I did not care about chemistry but who was vastly entertaining and seemed to be a good teacher for the kids that actually wanted to learn. There was Mr. Debe, who made us find meaning in everything, and “Frieda,” our drama teacher, who instilled in us the addictive acting bug.
I had weird teachers and nice teachers and mean teachers and funny teachers and emotional teachers and teachers who wore toupees and teachers who were obviously depressed and teachers who got into trouble and teachers who didn’t like me and teachers who did.
And somehow, miraculously, I got an education and went to college and now I find myself gainfully employed (sort of) as an adult. But I know the cards were stacked in my favor. Because I’m white. Because I come from a highly educated family.
I never really worked very hard. I kind of slid by, honestly. My teachers assumed that I was smart, I think. They assumed I was a good kid. I remember being able to walk through the halls of my high school without the need for a hall pass. I was never asked for one. People just figured I had somewhere to be.
In that way, I understand where Chris Stewart is coming from when he talks about the belief gap, because I saw it from the other side: my teachers believed in me. But that wasn’t true for every kid. I remember distinctly hearing from a teacher, “Some kids just don’t belong in public schools.”
I think that teacher was wrong to say that. Maybe some kids just need some extra support. Teachers need that support — from the administration, from the community — but they also can’t give up on kids.
I think attitudes get changed one person at a time. But I also think that somehow, the achievement gap must be tackled not only by one teacher at a time. It seems to me that it’s a systemic problem. I don’t know what the solution is. Poverty, certainly is a factor, but not the only factor. Segregation, both between schools and within the school walls due to tracking, also seems like it plays a role. When I was in school, though I went to diverse schools, my classes — either pre-IB at Anwatin or the Liberal Arts Magnet at South — were not as diverse as the student bodies of those schools.
Of course, it’s been quite a long time since I’ve been in high school. I think one voice we haven’t been hearing in all this is the students themselves. What do they have to say? Do they have ideas about how to make our schools better and more equitable?