Sunday, March 25, 2012

Teaching in Minnesota...My Perspective

With this post, I'm taking a different direction from my normal running and faith-related posts. I just read an article from the Star Tribune regarding public school teachers and their pressures and expectations in the state of Minnesota. As a public school teacher, the article intrigued me but also got me a little fired up about how I feel about all the things that are being put on public school teachers today, both good and bad. I felt I should share my perspective, especially since my perspective is one that isn't being heard from in this state concerning all of this in Minnesota right now.

First, some background on where I am coming from as a teacher: I grew up attending school in the state's largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin. I graduated in 2003 from Coon Rapids High School. When I went through my student-teaching, I worked in the Mounds View School District at Mounds View High School and Chippewa Middle School. I then spent my first 2 years teaching at Watertown-Mayer High School, a school of 500+ students about 30 minutes west of the Twin Cities. Since 2010, I have been teaching at Wayzata High School, a school of 3300 students (the largest high school in Minnesota). In total, I have taught professionally for 4 years in two school districts and have experience as a teacher or student in 3 or the largest high schools in the state.

As I go through this post I will preface everything by saying I am not an expert on any of this, but being a teacher now for 4 years, I have a lot of first-hand knowledge and experience of how all of these changes are affecting teachers, schools, parents, and most importantly, students.

I am a person who is self-motivated and have found a great passion for teaching and coaching. There is not another job in the world I would want to have. Most of the teachers I work with would say the same thing. With every job, there are stresses unique to the job, and they can make you question at times why you are doing what you are doing. It happens quite often for me in the classroom, but it rarely has anything to do with the students that I teach.

I became a teacher in part because of the amazing teachers that I had growing up. As I mentioned, I grew up in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. This district has been receiving some incredibly negative national publicity over the past months for a number of policies that had put teachers under difficult situations where their hands were tied with what they could and could not say. When I graduated in 2003, this district was widely considered one of the best in the entire state. Not because of their policies, but because of the amazing teachers that educated the students that entered those buildings. Those that look down on this district today, don't look down on those teachers working so hard in those buildings. Many of my teachers that influenced me are still there today and there are not mediocre or poor teachers. They are teachers who care, who work hard to get better and try to leave an impact on their students. Just to name a few that I know are still around, thank you to Ms. Zimba at Northdale MS, Mr. Gallagher at Andover ES (formerly at Sorteberg ES), Mr. Timm (now retired), Ms. Carlson, Mr. Dejoy, Mr. Scott, and Mr. McLean at Coon Rapids HS. These are just a handful of the people I am grateful of for leading me to where I am today.

Now on to some of what the article brought up. The state has passed some controversial policies in recent years regarding teachers and school districts. The most recent is doing away with tenure and requiring all teachers to be evaluated regularly and that experience would not be the sole reason for a teacher losing their job but also their ability as a teacher. I want to say that this is a phenomenal policy. Most teachers would disagree with me on this one. Teachers do need to be held accountable for their performance in the classroom. Many would respond to me by saying, "You're a probationary teacher. Of course, you want this policy to go into place. It helps you keep your job." While this is true, I have seen enough poor teachers who are protected by seniority who simply go about their business each day, doing the minimal requirements to keep their jobs (I took over the teaching responsibilities of one these such teachers this year). As I mentioned before, I am a self-motivated person. I don't like to do the bare minimum. I want to do the best that I possibly can at everything I do. I want to continually improve. I don't want to just do a half-a**ed job of educating my students. The one problem I find with this policy is how the teachers will be evaluated. Each teacher is now going to be evaluated once a year starting in 2014. That's a great start but one evaluation a year is not going to show you just how good of a teacher someone is. Using student test scores also won't cut it, at least not as a stand alone form of evaluation (which is what No Child Left Behind has been using). I don't have the answer, but I know the evaluations I go through as a probationary teacher at Wayzata are very thorough and give me as a teacher a lot of feedback into how I am doing and what I can improve on.

The other one that I want to touch on is one I do not agree with at all. It was passed by Governor Mark Dayton last year and it dealt with people getting into the educational field coming from a particular career field straight into the classroom. First, I think the initial idea of getting professionals with a strong background in a particular subject (ex. chemists, engineers teaching science & engineering courses) to teach those classes is a great idea. The way the state has allowed them to go about letting them get into schools is completely wrong. Those of us who chose the path of becoming an educator went through 4-5+ years of specific schooling to be an educator, extensive time spent observing professional teachers and being given the chance to teach in those rooms with the help of those teachers before being given a degree and a license to teach. The professionals who are stepping in are required a small number of classroom hours (in comparison) and can step right in to teach the same classes we've been teaching. The state has now discovered a problem with this and has now passed another new policy, requiring all potential Minnesota teachers to pass a basic skills test before they can teach in the state. Ummmm...last I checked all teachers had to do this to get into college to ultimately become a teacher in the first place. Do other professionals need to take an additional basic skills test before they step into their field? NO.

Teachers already have more hoops to jump through just to get into their first classroom. Adding more of this is going to continue to turn people away from wanting to be teachers. When that happens, good teachers will become much harder to find, class sizes will most likely increase and the quality of the students' education will decrease significantly, the exact opposite of what everyone wants to see.

As a teacher, I love what I do and wouldn't want to trade my job for anything else. Most teachers feel the same way. I am inspired each day by the students I am fortunate enough to work with. I hope 30 years from now I will still be impacting students the way I am today. I think all of us would agree we want the best for our siblings, children and eventually grandchildren when it comes to their education. I know for myself I will do everything in my power to keep positively impacting and educating my students but not every teacher's motivational scale may be the same as mine. The state of Minnesota is trying to do their best to improve the state's educational system. Some of what they are doing is on the right track. A lot of what they are doing is not. My hope is that the perspectives of other teachers can be heard by the state so that things can be done right and that our students in Minnesota can have the best education in the country, but we've got a very long way to go.


Sean O'Day said...

Same deal out here in Colorado. If you come out this summer, we'll have plenty to discuss.

I think the ultimate solution is this: some sort of slick teacher-marketing ad campaign. SOMETHING to increase the perceived prestige of the profession, something to make the average taxpayer believe those tax dollars going to education are well-spent.

The trickle-down from there would be huge - higher salaries means more talent drawn to the field, which in turn increases the level of instruction given to kids, and then the cycle feeds itself.

Some tweaks to how we are compensated? Sure. But as school districts across the country experiment with cookie-cutter, corporate-borne pay-for-performance compensation plans, they seem blind to the horrendous consequences they incur.

Matt Lindstrom said...

I thought I read in an earlier post of yours that your coach is/was Don Glover. Do you have any of his contact info? He was my track coach in high school (White Bear Lake) and I would like to reconnect with him. Thanks!