I have taught in the Minneapolis public schools for 20 years, after starting my career on the North Side. I feel that I must respond to the March 23 article “Poor schools, rookie teachers” and to the idea that teachers leave the toughest schools once they have a little seniority because they want something “easier.”
Teaching at any school is challenging. Teaching at a school where most of the children are living in poverty is challenging in a way that few people can begin to understand. Middle-class families worry about their children being ready for kindergarten, but when I began teaching, most of my kindergartners arrived at school almost completely unprepared. Some of them were unable to speak in sentences, and that included the native English speakers. All of them were loved, but most had missed many of the experiences we expect children to have in their first five years. Each day I had to try to make up for all that they had missed, in addition to teaching them what they needed to know to be ready for first grade. Each day I went home feeling like a failure.
Working with at-risk children is deeply satisfying and often joyful, but sometimes it will break your heart. When your kindergartners play “duck and cover” and “call 911, my boyfriend is coming over to kill me,” you know that they have needs that you may not be able to address. After a few years of this, a devoted teacher may be emotionally exhausted and might reasonably decide to move to another school where she is less likely to burn out.
One year, of the children who started kindergarten with me on the first day of school, only three were still there on the last day. Every two or three weeks all year long, I lost a student and gained one, all the way through May. That was one of my most difficult years. By then I was a mother, had less time on evenings and weekends, and wanted to work someplace where I would have enough energy left to bring home to my own children.
I have taught children who had no food at home, were the victims of sexual abuse, were homeless, or had experienced serious trauma, and my experiences are not unique in any way. My colleagues all have stories to tell. The teachers I have worked with love children, and they love teaching. We all have had more joyful moments than heartbreaking ones, and that is why we keep going. Successfully reaching the children who need us the most, however, is only possible in the long term with a strong support system in place.
If we are to keep new teachers from leaving the toughest schools and bring the experienced teachers back, we need to give those teachers the help they need. It would be nice if teachers who work in the most challenging schools could be paid more. More important, though: They should work under experienced, supportive and talented principals whom they can trust; have a full staff of social workers and psychologists to help serve the children and their families, and work in a healthy and caring school culture. They should have small class sizes, as well as support staff working with them in their classrooms. Their schools should have effective behavior staff and school behavior plans that actually work to minimize disruption while keeping children in class and learning.
For the past decade, I’ve worked at a school where 97 percent of the children qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. I stay because the school climate is good for children and teachers alike. I stay because my principal is wonderful, supports us and does what’s best for children, and because I trust her. I stay because my colleagues are gifted teachers and good company, and because I continually learn from them.
Teachers do want to do what is best for the children of this city. They don’t leave some schools looking for something easier; they leave because of a level of stress that very few people can handle long-term. With the right support, we can strengthen our most challenged schools.
Kirsten Ragatz lives in Minneapolis.