On Nov. 2, the Star Tribune published “Minneapolis' worst teachers are in the poorest schools, data show” by Alejandra Matos. In this article, Matos explained that, according to teacher evaluation data from Minneapolis Public Schools, “schools with the largest number of low-income students have the highest concentration of poor-performing instructors." There were some strong reactions to the article.
On Nov. 7, the Star Tribune ran “Walk a mile in my teaching shoes,” an op-ed by Greta Callahan, a teacher at Bethune Elementary, one of the schools Matos discussed. There were strong responses to this piece, as well.
I hope that the fact that so many have reacted to these two articles—in comments on the Star Tribune website and on social media—is an indication that people are yearning for a new, honest conversation about what MPS students, teachers and leaders need to be successful.
Callahan’s personal story is important, and we should encourage more teachers to speak up. Whether you agree with everything she says or not, her narrative adds context to the high-level data Matos shared. Great teaching too often goes unrecognized, and macro-level data tells only a piece of the teacher performance picture.
As we move forward and consider practices and policies to improve our schools, we must consider both high-level data and personal experiences from educators, parents and students. I don’t think it can be either-or, and I don’t think we should discourage those who speak up to do so again.
Meanwhile, as hard-working teachers were hurt by the notion that they are “the worst,” many people were concerned about the implications of Callahan’s piece. “I couldn’t help but think of people I know who would read this article and have it basically confirm everything negative they already think about ‘those kids’ and miss the message of ‘our kids can achieve so much,’” one Facebook commenter said of the op-ed.
And sure enough, many of the comments on Callahan’s piece include racist vitriol depicting children of color from low-income families as violent little thugs who are unsuccessful in life because of their one-parent families.
Teachers’ stories are valid, but so are concerns about the stereotypes that they may unintentionally fuel. I recognize that as a white teacher, at a school not named in Matos’ article, I can’t speak exactly to how that article might have made Bethune educators feel. Nor can I fully understand how many parents and people of color were hurt by Callahan's response and the idea that working at Bethune is akin to being “in the trenches.” This all confirms for me—a teacher, advocate and writer—that the words I use and stories I tell are critically important and might be more powerful than I realize.
The citywide teacher evaluation data is not a personal attack on teachers in high-poverty schools, and Matos highlighted data that we must confront. In every school, we have effective teachers and teachers who are still learning. Yet we cannot ignore that our city has a pretty clear demographic map indicating that, overall, the whiter and higher-income a school is, the more experienced and effective and better paid the teachers are. To me, this indicates that we desperately need to reform how we recruit, train, evaluate, support and compensate teachers, with equity and student success at the core of every decision we make.
"We want society to believe in our kids, just as much as we do," Callahan writes—and I believe she means this. But, again, back to the language we use and the stories we tell, if we teachers want society to believe in all kids, then we need to take the lead on changing the narrative. Do teachers have hard jobs? Absolutely. Should we sugarcoat our experiences when talking to parents and community members? No. But, could we teachers be more cognizant of how the ways we think and talk about our classrooms might fuel harmful racial stereotypes? (And, as #pointergate demonstrated just last week, such stereotypes are a huge problem in our community.) Could we lead by sharing success stories to reinforce that all children can learn and excel? I say yes.
I hope that the last couple weeks have moved conversations around how to strengthen MPS forward, not backward. And I hope that they have refocused us on what I believe is everyone’s number one priority: every child in Minneapolis deserves a relevant and rigorous public school, with teachers who are well-supported and who believe in all students’ potential. We need relentless commitment to this goal, and a willingness to openly wrestle with the tough issues as we work towards it.
Holly Kragthorpe teaches seventh-graders at Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, where she is a union steward for Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, a school captain for Educators 4 Excellence and a teacher policy fellow for MinnCAN.