Earlier this month I returned to St. Paul, Minn. – my home turf for 22 years. I’ve spent the past six years rounding out my post-secondary education with a bachelor’s degree and a soon-to-be-completed master’s in education. I also spent the last two years teaching in Kansas City, Mo. The journey has been fulfilling and rewarding, but I’m glad to be back home, working with MinnCAN on a goal that, as both a former teacher and proud Minnesotan, is near and dear to my heart: ensuring all Minnesota children have access to an excellent public school.
Since my homecoming, many people ask me the same question: “What did you think of your experience teaching?” “Well,” I tell them, “It was [insert pause to build the listener’s anticipation]… a lot of things.” Formative, humbling, and frustrating yet empowering…the list of adjectives I’d use to describe my experience is pretty long. I unfortunately cannot sum my experience up in a 30-second elevator speech because it would do that experience absolutely no justice. But I can give people a small taste of what it was like.
I taught seventh- and ninth-grade social studies in the urban core of Kansas City during a turbulent two years in the school system. During that time, Kansas City closed half of its schools through “right-sizing,” a strategy that forced tens of thousands of students to find new schools due to declining enrollment. The school district lost its accreditation because of it, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cited it as one of the worst school districts in the nation. Sandwiched between these events was the abrupt exodus of the superintendent. Dull moments were few and far between.
Despite the chaos, I genuinely enjoyed teaching my students—most days. My first year was, like it is for most teachers, an emotional roller coaster. I couldn’t understand why on some days my classroom ran smoothly and other days it did not.
My frustration from these inconsistencies continued until I started observing my colleague Mr. Smith’s classroom on my plan period and debriefing with him after school. Mr. Smith, a veteran teacher, had impressive classroom management and even better relationships with students. Thanks to his example, Teach For America’s professional support and my own resiliency, I accomplished what I consider a 180-degree improvement in my second year of teaching. At times, the students were so engaged in their work I felt like I was getting in the way of their learning. Those empowering moments where I made small steps to close the achievement gap motivated me to continue teaching this upcoming fall (that is, if I can get alternative teacher certification, but let’s leave that topic for another blog post).
While reflecting on my experience, many obstacles and barriers continue to bother me. For example, the quality of public education that my students will likely receive hinges on the zip code in which they live. Seeing many students who work hard and maintain a great attitude is, too often, not enough to offer any sort of guarantee for life success. Those harsh realities are not only true for students in Kansas City, but for most Minnesota students who grow up in poverty or come from a diverse, non-white background. I left the classroom bothered by the ways the system shuts down opportunities for too many of our students, but inspired with the belief that solutions are within reach. MinnCAN shares this belief and that is why I joined in its mission.
If the current level of education inequality bothers you, too, please help make education reform a top issue. A great way to do so: Make it part of the dialogue in your local state legislative races this summer and fall. Candidates, whether incumbents or challengers, need to hear from you that education reform policies can help our state achieve a vision where all Minnesota students receive access to a great public education.
I invite you to contact me with any questions or comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lincoln Hughes is a Teach For America alumnus and MinnCAN intern