Trickling in from their buses, the students in Marcia Wyatt’s class stop and check the easel where she’s posted her daily greeting.
As they enter without chatter to head to their seats, she reminds one or two to straighten a collar on their navy blue uniform shirts.
Wyatt has been teaching in no-nonsense fashion in Minneapolis schools since 1992, always in high-poverty schools. She is aware — and very proud — of her reputation. It’s one that keeps some families asking for her when the next sibling comes along.
“I’m the one who is probably the strictest in the building. I really truly hold the students accountable. I’m known as the one you don’t want to mess with,” she said during a break from her third-grade classroom at Elizabeth Hall elementary school in Minneapolis.
Wyatt and dozens of teachers like her are bucking the general trend of experienced Minneapolis teachers leaving the most challenging schools, despite accumulating seniority that would allow them to do so.
That general pattern means that typically the schools that have high minority populations have the least experienced teachers. But Hall has maintained a teaching staff that averages 13 years of experience — right on the district average.
Wyatt stays in part because she values her teaching colleagues and the leadership of Principal Bennice Young, who has led the school since 2006, taking the post two years after now-Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, who hired Wyatt at Elizabeth Hall.
Wyatt’s strictness masks a fierce desire to make a difference for her students. “I want to be in a school where the students look like me and I look like them,” said Wyatt, who is black. “This is where I’ve always wanted to teach so it’s where I want to stay. The challenges help me to grow.”
But the challenges are always there, in educating students who come to school often ill-prepared for academics and beset by family issues. Some are still learning to tell time.
“There are days when you go to your colleagues and say, ‘Did I accomplish anything today?’ We have to remind ourselves that it takes a few more teachers to water the seed and it puts down roots before you see it.”
Wyatt’s first Minneapolis job was at Sheridan, then Broadway, and now Hall, a North Side elementary school that offers international baccalaureate education with Mandarin Chinese. Nine of every 10 students at the 450-student building qualify for free or subsidized lunch.
She has taught several grade levels. She’s coached other teachers at Hall. She switched to working with students with behavior issues when the district was downsizing, using an extra teaching license gained years earlier to stay on the Hall staff. But she’s most comfortable in her own classroom, and said she’s rewarded by seeing a student improve over time.
She keeps the overhead lights off, using daylight and a few upward pointing lamps to illuminate her classroom, something that eases the symptoms of her fibromyalgia that flares up occasionally. Banners with exhortations and advice on good habits hang like stalactites from her ceiling.
It’s a space she patrols with assurance and vigilance. She has the experienced teacher’s ability to monitor her class even while squatting at a desk to work with a student individually. Often just a look or a snap of her fingers will summon a student wandering off course back on task. She holds up five fingers and flicks them down in turn when she needs the attention of the entire group.
She picked up these nonverbal cues in classroom management training. They save her voice for instruction rather than discipline. She typically speaks softly, a trick that forces students to listen harder. But when she needs to go further to rein a student, she’ll speak sharply but tersely: “I’m going to ask for it to stop!”
Keeping students in line helps them to concentrate on instruction. Today, she’s discussing predator and prey, plus the idea of different parts of nature producing, consuming and decomposing. She encourages her students to look for evidence in their texts and associated materials. They scan National Geographic to scissor out examples. She’s on them to wipe up glue and clean magazine scraps before they go on to an art specialist. “I want them to be responsible for their room,” she said. “It’s a reminder to them to take care of their space.”
Johnson calls Wyatt’s approach tough love. “She’s highly organized, highly productive when I was working there, and runs a tight classroom. The kids know what to expect from her,” the superintendent said. “They reward her for that.”
Wyatt caught the teaching bug early, when she first entered a classroom at Public School 241 in Brooklyn at age 6. “My very first teacher got me hooked,” she said. “She just seemed like she could open up the world to you. She was excited, and we were excited.”
Growing up with cousins in Petersburg, Va., “I was always the teacher type — telling people what to do.”
Wyatt used to routinely show up for work at 5:30 a.m., two hours before school starts, to prepare for the day without interruptions and use the copier without standing in a line. She’s cut back somewhat on that this year, in part to keep her pledge to take better care of herself, especially since she balances teaching with a 30-hour-a-week job as an associate minister for a St. Paul Baptist church.
Her ministry includes leading aerobics at the church four days a week, something that relieves the stress that builds up during her day. She has also run a marathon. There’s crossover between teaching and ministry, she said — both involve trying to excite and motivate a group.
The art of teaching
Wyatt isn’t the only high-seniority teacher at Hall. Terry Abel has been teaching in high-poverty North Side schools all through her 20-year career and is one of Hall’s three kindergarten teachers. They’re often joined by retired teachers hired to come back to work with reading groups.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a student who has everything going against them make progress,” said one of the retirees, Julie Munson. They think experience helps Hall.
“I feel I’m getting better as I get older,” Abel said. Their work has helped to push Hall to near the top of district schools for gains in literacy skills during kindergarten.
Hall can also prove a crucible for future teachers. College student Starsha Vang is finishing a student teaching stint with Wyatt. “Being here is definitely a challenge most days. … But she always tells me that if I can teach here, I can teach anywhere.”
Part of what motivates Wyatt is knowing that she has the opportunity to divert kids distracted by many outside influences, kids who might otherwise be headed toward the violence of the streets, to careers as doctors or lawyers. Young said teachers like Wyatt know the art of teaching as well as the science — not only knowing strategies but when to use them.
Part of that art is having a big heart.
“I’m proud to say I work in a building where everyone who works here is here for the betterment of the students,” Wyatt said.