Let teachers teach

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Denise Specht (Courtesy Photo)

No one goes into teaching thinking it will be easy, at least no one in my family. I’m a fourth-generation teacher. I grew up hearing about my great-grandmother who taught in a one-room schoolhouse in North Dakota. 

She taught math and English during the day. In the winter, she lived at the school and fed the wood-burning stove to keep the building open to students. 

My mother taught special education in Buffalo, Minn. She didn’t live at her school, but she worked days, weekends and summers to ensure her students were prepared for successful lives. 

I thought I went into teaching with my eyes open, but even I wasn’t ready for the obstacles poverty put in the way of my students at my first job in the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas. 

Those early years were hard for me, as they are for any teacher, but I got through them with the help of a long list of mentors and colleagues. 

Yet I believe it’s even harder to be a teacher in Minnesota today than it was for me, or for my mother, or even for my great-grandmother. 

I can’t exaggerate how frustrated teachers are by giant class sizes, the pressure to raise scores on standardized tests and mandates to teach from scripted curricula that leave little room to adapt the lesson to the child. 

At the same time, students are coming to school with greater and more diverse needs than ever before. Sometimes, the needs are simple, like toothpaste, clean underwear or food. Sometimes students bring complicated mental or physical health conditions. 

Unfortunately, the demand for supportive services is outrunning supply. Spending on support staff, including counselors and nurses, declined roughly 7 percent since 2004, according to the think tank Minnesota 2020, even as the number of children in poverty grew. In Duluth, spending on support services fell by 60 percent. 

Trying to be a nurse, social worker, dietician and statistician at the same time you’re trying to teach a class of 30 or more students can be exhausting. It’s incredibly rewarding, but I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t go home tired. 

There’s a cost to this pressure. The Minnesota Department of Education says about a third of teachers quit in their first five years. 

Great public school systems are built on well-trained, experienced educators. We may not be retaining enough young teachers to replace the vets as they retire.

Our state must take better care of its new teachers by providing mentors and other special resources. We also need to restore the support services offered by schools so more educators can focus on teaching. 

I know teaching will never be easy. We’ll always have to chop a little wood to keep the stove going, at least metaphorically, but Minnesota can do a better job attracting young people to teaching and retaining new educators. Mentors and wraparound support services are a good start. 

Denise Specht is president of Education Minnesota, the union of 70,000 Minnesota educators. She is also an elementary teacher on leave from the Centennial School District. www.educationminnesota.org 

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