At Elizabeth Hall school in Minneapolis, veteran teachers make a difference

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 6, 2014 - 6:00 AM

Veteran teachers opting to stay in tough schools despite having the seniority to transfer out.

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Marcia Wyatt is known at Elizabeth Hall elementary school as a quiet, no-nonsense teacher who commands discipline and respect in her classroom.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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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.”

Command central

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!”

Tough love

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.”

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  • “I want to be in a school where the students look like me and I look like them,” says Wyatt, who has chosen to teach in high-poverty schools.

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