Joe Nathan: Encouraging News About Improving Teacher Preparation

by Joe Nathan

Here’s encouraging news as Minnesotans prepare for a new school year.  The Minnesota State Board of Teaching, Education Minnesota, the state’s teacher union, and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers have responded thoughtfully to the recent controversy about Teach for America. At a time when there is widespread rancor about how to improve public schools, these were encouraging responses.

First, the Minnesota Board of Teaching responded positively to parents and principals. These people urged the board to approve a number of Teach for America participants to work in district and charter schools this coming year. More than 100 people packed a hearing room to explain why.  Krystal Centeno, a Spanish-speaking parent from Hiawatha Academies in Minneapolis told the board, via a translator, “I hope you will listen to our principal. Teachers at Hiawatha help our students succeed. “

Eli Kramer, executive director of Hiawatha Academies, explained that he and his leadership team hired traditionally trained and Teach for America participants. In describing the TFA participants, Kramer explained, “They are both college graduates with very strong academic records of their own. They have a demonstrably strong mindset that all children can learn if given the right opportunities. They exude passion for this work, showing that they want to be part of a team that does whatever it takes to close the opportunity gaps that exist in our city.”

Bill Wilson, founder and executive director of Higher Ground Academy also talked with the State Board.   Wilson, formerly Minnesota’s Commissioner of Human Rights, noted that U.S. News and World Report has named Higher Ground Academy three times as among the best public schools in Minnesota and the U.S.  The (charter) school also has been cited repeatedly by a local newspaper for it’s success in “beating the odds.”

Wilson pointed out that HGA hires both traditionally trained and TFA participants.  He explained that there is “an urgent need for colleges of education to prepare more teachers who have the skills and desire to work with low income, inner city youngsters and students of color”…the predominant student body at HGA. (Full disclosure – the Center for School Change, where this author works, shares space with HGA.)

John Bellingham, chair of the Board of Teaching, voted with the majority, which accepted the waiver requests from Kramer, Wilson and other school leaders. Bellingham has taught in Faribault for more than 30 years, mostly as a sixth-grade teacher. He has won awards for his work. At the end of the meeting, Bellingham clearly and fairly announced, “We expect to see very few waiver requests next year. You should submit an ’Alternative Route to Teaching Application.’ “ Crystal Brakke, Minnesota TFA director, replied that she heard and would be following up.

There was a second, recent important development: an announcement from Education Minnesota. The statewide teacher union said it wanted to “lead the state in honest conversations on what it will take to recruit, train and support high-quality teachers to serve Minnesota’s students… These conversations will include voices from communities of color, faith leaders, teacher preparation programs, business owners and other major stakeholders.” Education Minnesota wants recommendations developed by April 2014.

In one of her first public statements, newly elected Education Minnesota President Denise Specht commented, “…for too long groups have been working in silos on improving teacher quality and recruiting more people of color into the profession to better reflect the state’s increasingly diverse student population… Now is the time for Minnesotans to work together to assure that we have consistent, high-quality, professional teaching standards so we can meet the needs of all students – regardless of where they live or their socioeconomic status.”  I think Specht is right.

It’s too early to know what will be recommended, but this seems like an important statement of openness from Education Minnesota. In a “tweet,” Brakke of TFA praised the Education Minnesota announcement.

Finally, St Paul Federation of Teachers president Mary Cathryn Ricker has stressed her willingness to work with others, including charter public school educators, on improving recruitment and preparation of teachers.  The St. Paul Federation of Teachers applied for and received a grant from the American Federation of Teachers to develop new approaches to recruiting and training urban public school teachers.  Ricker wants to see more “attention to thoughtful recruiting into teaching, especially so we can much better diversify our profession. I’m eager for sincere and sustained work to happen in this area in particular.”

Kramer of Hiawatha described part of what excellent educators do:  “Teaching is incredibly complex and challenging… becoming a great teacher takes time. (Great teachers) build relationships with scholars and families, manage a classroom, plan great unit(s) with great lessons… drive rigorous instruction, and use data to figure out what students have learned and therefore what to do next.”

To that, I’d add that great teachers understand and build on their students’ strengths.  They don’t see just the problems that young people and their families have.  They help young people develop their special talents.  The finest teachers help young people accomplish far more than they thought possible.

What we may be seeing in the Twin Cities is growing openness, which could lead to important progress.  Whether district, charter, Board of Teaching, TFA, Education Minnesota or St Paul Federation of Teachers, there appears to be a willingness to focus on what can be done to improve recruitment and training of urban teachers.  That’s encouraging.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, and he can be reached at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.