‘Worst teachers in poorest schools” (Nov. 2) did a masterful job of reporting the symptoms of shortcomings within Minneapolis’ public school system. Sadly, the article missed the real story behind our inner-city schools’ “failures.”
I am a teacher at Minneapolis’ poorest school: Bethune Elementary. We were mentioned in the article. Here is my side of the story — the side of hundreds of dedicated educators who take their jobs as seriously as any professionals on Earth.
Let’s start with what it means to be a “good teacher.” As the article says: “The district uses three different tools to evaluate teachers: classroom observations, a student survey and student achievement data.” Let’s put that into the perspective of a Bethune kindergarten teacher.
• Classroom observations: We have four per year. The teacher receives points based on standardized criteria; the feedback is generally helpful. But these observations also involve the observer walking up to students and asking what they are doing. Even my 5-year-olds, who may have just started school, get asked this question. The student is supposed to regurgitate the “I can” statement that correlates to “Focused Instruction.” The usual response, though, is something along the lines of “math” or “Jaden took my crayon!”
If you were in my room, observing an observation, you would laugh. I promise.
• Student surveys: I administer a student survey once a year. My 5-year-olds have to circle their responses (even though they can’t read) to questions about their teacher and school. Have you been around a 5-year-old? They are adorable, spacey, loud and unfocused — and under no circumstances does this student survey make sense for them or to them.
• Student achievement data: Two to three times a year, our students are pulled out of our classrooms and tested by a stranger from the district. When she asks our kids to go into a separate room with her and gives them a test, most of them shut down. It’s intimidating to them. Some are asked to take this test in the middle of breakfast; others are tested right after recess. The inconsistency of when our children are tested creates a test that isn’t being measured consistently or accurately, in my opinion.
These are the “achievement data” that are referenced in the article. The scores are often low and rarely reflect the students’ actual achievements. My fellow teachers and I have plenty of conflicting and affirming evidence to support our students’ actual achievements, growth and knowledge. But this evidence is not considered when determining the effectiveness of a teacher.
One of the opening quotes in the article is enough to make a teacher want to pack up her things and walk out the door: “ ‘It’s alarming that it took this to understand where teachers are,’ Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said Friday. ‘It made me think about how we need to change our staffing and retention.’ ”
Really? None of this is rocket science. The retention rate of teachers at my school and others like it will not go up unless we have more incentive to stay — and more assistance to attempt to give our students an even chance.
At Bethune, many of our students are what most Americans would define as starving. At least a third are HHM (homeless/highly mobile), see violence in their homes or neighborhoods regularly and come to school with baggage many of us couldn’t imagine, let alone at age 5. Yet they are expected to meet the standards of kindergartners at upwardly mobile neighborhood schools like Burroughs and Hale. As far as the tests are concerned, a teacher is a teacher and a student is a student.
There are plenty of reasons why a teacher might not want to teach in a school like Bethune. Say, physical safety. Within the last two weeks, I have been slapped so hard in the face by a student that I had to seek emergency care; have been threatened by a student who said he was going to go home, come back and hurt me, because I wrote him up for hurting one of my kindergartners, and have broken up numerous fights. My fellow teachers and I have had parents threaten our safety more times than I can count — threats delivered on school property, in front of students. And, lest anyone be misinformed, there is no combat pay for working at a school like mine.
My children are happy to come to school and they are eager to learn. But sometimes they just lose it. A student will throw a chair across the room, or scissors at other students, or kick and punch me. It takes time, love and energy to find out why they are doing this. Many are imitating behaviors they see at home. Sometimes they have bottled-up feelings about something they have experienced and don’t know how to handle their anger. So, I teach them. I love them. I’m consistently there for them. I report their situation to Hennepin County all too often.
Many of our children do not have someone who will look over their work with them at night or take them to an activity. Our parents are generally very young and trying their best. It takes a village, but our village is poverty-stricken in every imaginable way.
Let’s talk about classroom stability. It is not a rarity when a student just doesn’t show up. Last year, I had a total of two days with perfect attendance. Many of our families do not have stable housing and have to move frequently, often out of state. Four new students have enrolled in my classroom within the last month. None has had any previous schooling (yes, you can still just start in October); none could write his or her name.
Imagine playing catch-up with those children, while others are reading. Now imagine students throwing chairs across the room and calling you a “bitch ass hoe” because you asked them to take a break at their desk. Imagine the time it takes to evacuate that room with your other little ones as an angry child destroys the safe space you have created. (Don’t forget, this child is too young to be suspended.) Imagine your prep time — it’s filled with phone calls and write-ups and with desperately trying to get ready for the exciting lesson that you have planned for math. Because, at the end of the day, we are still teachers.
Yes, our scores are low. Yes, we have brand new teachers this year because so many didn’t return from last year. But those of us who are here, want to be here. We love this school. We love our kids and know how smart they are. We love our profession. We want society to believe in our kids, just as much as we do.
So, why do we want to be here? If you walked into my colorful, happy classroom, you’d see a wall of notes and pictures from my former and current students. Almost all are written on a piece of garbage or the back of a work sheet. Those pictures are drawn because my students love school. Because they want to express to me, their teacher, their safe place, that they want to be here. The nonmonetary rewards are priceless.
Students often enter our rooms jaded and defeated in August, and leave with a sense of confidence and hope for their future in June. But our achievement scores don’t measure hope and confidence.
Because they have learned, because a teacher cared, and because a teacher did his or her job, our children are making amazing strides, considering where they start each year. But they’re still not averaging at “grade level” or performing well on a state standardized test that assumes that all upbringings and home lives are created equal.
The takeaway from this article should not be that we have bad teachers in bad schools. We have more than enough problems at schools like Bethune — but the dedicated staff that we are desperately trying to maintain isn’t in the Top 10 of those problems. And “Focused Instruction” isn’t the answer. Taking “good” teachers from schools filled with rich kids isn’t the answer, either.
How about measuring the growth of our children? How about a sister school program with south Minneapolis schools? How about helping us meet the basic needs of our children and then “catching them up” with students in more affluent areas of our city? Blanket statements like “worst teachers in poorest schools” simply aren’t real life.
Do we want a pat on the back? No. Do we want your sympathy? No. Do we want our community to be aware of the challenges in our schools? Yes, we desperately do.
Please do not oversimplify a complex problem by blaming the teachers who are in the trenches every day.
Greta Callahan is a Minneapolis Public Schools teacher.