Ready to retire after a 30-year career in Minneapolis public schools, Steve Couture put his plans on hold to take on the job of Principal at the American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul.
I had two lives in Minneapolis public schools. When I got out of college I was a teacher — that was in the early ’70s. I taught at Bryant Junior High and Phillips Junior High in Minneapolis. I grew up in Duluth, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Superior. I was a physical education and health teacher. My interest was starting to work with [American] Indian education, but in the ’70s the job market for teachers was terrible … I kept getting laid off. Every year I’d have to scrounge around. So finally I went back to school and got a master’s in counseling, thinking that might provide me some options, but it didn’t provide me any options — they were laying off counselors too. I ended up connecting with General Mills who hired me as a human resources person. I worked there for a few years, ended up in Chicago, worked with Montgomery Ward. When they closed their catalog division I got laid off, found my way back to Minneapolis, and that’s when I started to reconnect with my network in the school system and found out that they were starting to hire people back. I thought, now’s my chance to get back in, because I never really wanted to leave in the first place. My wife is an excellent human resources person — that’s where I met my wife — but it wasn’t what really drove me. It was interesting, but I didn’t thrive at it. I had a chance to get back into the [education] system, and that’s when I got into administration, in the mid-’80s. So I spent almost 25 years in administration — interim assistant principal, assistant principal. So all in all in my two stints in Minneapolis, I have about 30 years.
I qualified [for retirement] through the rule of 90 — I got in when that was still available — and I was talking with my wife and I said, “I’m still young enough to do something else, and if I don’t do it now I’ll probably never do it.” I didn’t really know what I was going to do; maybe I could substitute — occasionally they need substitute principals. I thought maybe I could dabble in some human resource things … be an outplacement counselor … I even thought about opening a sporting goods store, use some of that old physical education experience. I was just thinking broadly, then all of a sudden I connected with some people in St Paul and they said, “Well, we need somebody over here, would you be willing to do it?” and I said “Yes,” so here I am. I didn’t really get any [retirement] actually — I turned in my papers and got the call from the human resources people here [in St Paul] as I was pulling back into the parking lot of my school, so it was about two hours of retirement!
It was a good experience to come to a new district. The issues I faced were similar to Minneapolis but it’s a different system, a little bit different way of going about doing the work. I’ve really enjoyed it. I felt very accepted by the school district, the community and the staff, and feel like we’re making some progress, so it’s been invigorating to work with the school, get a strong teaching staff. We’re very diverse, but our whole mission is centered around American Indian language and culture. It’s been really gratifying for me to watch some of our Hmong kids, Latino kids … we do drumming and dance on Friday afternoons and everybody participates … it just makes your heart feel good.
Part of [the job] is trying to educate, part of it is trying to reinforce, part of it is trying to set good examples. Education historically in the American Indian community had been used to take culture away and some of that trauma and some of that anxiety and fear still is there, deeply ingrained, so it’s hard to overcome those things. Now’s the time. You can’t wait for it to fix itself.
The school is really a center of the community. The Indian Education Department and the school both sponsor powwows and it’s amazing to see people show up from all ethnic backgrounds. From an achievement standpoint, we look back at our MCA [Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment exam] scores last year and we got nice numbers on our growth and that’s very gratifying, because the teachers really worked hard. This year we’re trying to push a little bit harder — how do we weave in native language and culture in the day-to-day things [we do], and I think that makes everything much more relevant for kids.
I’m trying to work around my wife’s schedule too, when she’s ready to retire — she’s not quite there yet. Originally [when I was interviewed] I said three to five years. Next year’s the third, so I’m going to have to start thinking about that! I hope to stay connected to the school [when I retire]. It’s been my career, so I hope to stay connected, either as a volunteer or maybe I can be a mentor. Whoever replaces me when I go, it would be nice to help that person continue to move the school forward.
Someone who worked with me in Minneapolis was talking about how she had taken a big risk to leave all her seniority and status in Minneapolis to come to St. Paul to start working toward being an administrator. I told her, “There’s really no growth without an element of risk.” I think I would give that same advice to somebody who’s at the end of their career but wants to do something else. Obviously I didn’t stray too far from my roots — I didn’t go back to school to be a police officer or anything — but I say, take the risk, I think it’s worth it. I feel like I’ve grown a lot in the last year, and I think that’s what I was looking for when I was initially thinking maybe it’s time for me to try something a little bit different. Keep your options open, go in with your eyes open, but take a risk and pursue something that you feel good about.
Interview by Paul Duncan