On Sunday, I was named the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. Representing Minnesota’s more than 70,000 public, private and parochial teachers is an overwhelming honor that I will not take lightly. My first goal in helping better Minnesota’s schools will be leading a push to make the conversation about schools better.
During my year as Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year, I will focus on listening to Minnesota’s educators, those who experience firsthand every day the challenges and successes of our profession. I will engage in conversations with people all over the state involved in educational training, policy and support, and will count as an ally anyone who cares enough about schools to have an opinion.
I will most likely not agree with anyone about everything. But I believe there are more shared goals between us than there are disagreements. And I believe every day we spend not working together toward those goals is reckless and irresponsible.
The work is in front of us, and so is the answer. Districts like Osseo and the West Metro Education Program (WMEP, my home) are ahead of the curve on creating discipline policies that treat students with decency and humanity.
The Minneapolis and St. Paul districts are pursuing inventive solutions to attract and retain people of color in the classroom (many of whom are already successful with students in the hardest parts of the job in support-staff roles).
Groups like Education Minnesota, Educators 4 Excellence, Generation Next, ISAIAH and the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership are leading the way through effective organizing and a focus on social justice to make schools into the kinds of places that deserve to serve Minnesota’s kids.
Of course, teachers were there first, and teachers in classrooms, counseling offices and student-support roles have been doing more for longer to serve our students than any other single group. Teachers like Lora Hill in Winona who make safe spaces and paths for success for a group of students who will some day run the world. Teachers like Gwen Anderson, who serves English-learning students in Rocori while serving teachers across the state. Teachers like Lee Ann Stephens in St. Louis Park, like Billy Koenig in Shakopee and like Todd Hunter in Anoka, who prove every day that a passion for learning is a gift that can shape and save the lives of students. Teachers like Holly Kragthorpe-Shirley in Minneapolis, like Ryan Fiereck in St. Francis and like Ryan Mulso in St. Paul, who put their energy into work outside of their rooms leading, writing, organizing and speaking to make all the rooms in Minnesota better.
It is their stories, and the stories of hundreds of other teachers actively finding and implementing solutions to systemic problems in their own rooms, that I will spend this year telling.
Knowing these teachers and their stories, it is obvious that there is no absence of energy, passion or effort being applied to the problems schools face. Our problem is a lack of cooperation — a lack of respectful, open dialogue around schools. Schools are too important, our students are too important to turn what should be a thoughtful debate into a battle of ideologies, allegiances and political posturing.
Schools can be defended without people being attacked.
Ideas can be shared, improved and implemented quickly and better when we stop worrying about winning a fight — and start worrying about getting work done.
In every battle there are casualties, and the casualties in this battle won’t be the careers of those making news with vicious quips about “union stooges” or “corporate deformers.” No, the casualties of making education a political battle will be Minnesota’s students.
We owe it to them to stop trying to score political points by bashing other educational allies for caring about schools slightly differently than we do.
We owe to it students to stop calling people enemies, opponents and monsters.
We owe it to our students to act like grown-ups when we talk about kids.
Tom Rademacher teaches high school English at the Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resources (FAIR) School in downtown Minneapolis.