Legislative Advice from Teachers of the Year

/ 25 February 2016 / Shawna

Watch the video                  photo credit amsd.org

A January 26 Senate Education Hearing brought insights and recommendations from an interesting group—all former Minnesota Teachers of the Year; all imploring the elected officials to do better by Minnesota’s students.

Amy Hewett-Olatundé teaches English language learners in the St. Paul Schools, as well as pre-service teachers at Hamline University and the University of St. Thomas. In her testimony, she highlighted the fact that Minnesota has more refugee children than any other state, with children from war-torn countries making up more than 25% of the 65,000 immigrant students.

She spoke of students learning English who are being placed in higher level literature courses where they fall further and further behind. “We know how to make great gains with children learning English,” she explained, but stated, “many schools still don’t have the resources needed to effectively differentiate learning at the right levels so students will grow.”

Derek Olson, a long time Stillwater teacher and newly minted PhD, stressed that with teacher evaluations it is the “collaboration, reflection, and discussion between teachers” that results in instructional growth, and thus increased student achievement.

A good teacher evaluation plan provides teachers an opportunity to set goals based on identified areas of improvement and to reflect on progress, both of which research shows to be a powerful tool toward improving teacher quality.

Megan Olivia Hall is a science teacher in St. Paul who spoke of the benefits of directly teaching social-emotional skills to students. She shared that research supports large (11%) cognitive gains among children who are directly taught these skills (e.g. perseverance, responsibility, stewardship) and shows decreases in mental health disorders, behavior problems, violence, and bullying among them as well.

Ryan Vernosh is a teacher, district policy leader and now Communications Director in St. Paul Public Schools. He shared the successful process his district went through to create equitable school policies for all trans-gender students. He told of the high (78%) rate of bullying that transgender students report enduring, as well as the alarming suicide attempt rate among them (51%).

He offered an outline other districts could use to create policies for transgender student equity that acknowledges student humanity, dignity, and identity. “You can’t do equity half way,” Ryan quoted one parent from their work. He asked the legislature to include the voices of teachers, parents and students in all policy-making decisions, as this made all the difference in the fidelity of the policies he helped his community create.

Tom Rademacher is an English teacher and Instructional Specialist at Anishanabe Academy, a Minneapolis Public School, where he sees a commitment to both honor cultural practices of Native American children and break the cycle of failure associated with their educations. Tom reiterated the humbling truth that we continue to fail our native children (98.7% of his school’s students did not make progress in a year), despite all of the policies from on high to intervene and improve their academic outcomes. He outlined that schools for our native children need:

  • Trauma-informed instructional practices
  • The most successful and culturally literate staff
  • Every teaching tool available
  • Flexibility to meet needs of students, including social/emotional, mental health needs but also arts and music
  • Means of measuring that do not tear them down
  • Equity in how we fund schools

He likened our collective examination of our work with native children to looking at a broken bone on an x-ray and treating the break with “Bandaids and more x-rays because somehow a cast is not possible.”

Jackie Roehl, an Edina High School English teacher, focused her remarks on the critical role of teacher training and professional development. If we want to stop failing our students of color, she implored the state to give teachers the critical skis to be culturally responsive. Jackie implores the state to ensure that all districts have the resources and the requirement to do quality professional development, examining the beliefs and attitudes about race that teachers carry into their classrooms; the strategies that are needed to engage all learners; the culturally relevant content learners are being taught. Teachers need to learn what kids are good at, and relate to, as an avenue to learning.

Katy Smith, Parent Educator, ECFE, Winona, emphasized the importance of knowing and understanding young children separately from K-12 students. She underscored that the number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) a child has is directly correlative to their education and health outcomes later in life. Katy reminded lawmakers that early childhood experiences are foundational, and the opportunity to teach parenting skills profoundly impactful. “The number of words a child hears in their first year of life is a direct indicator of how well they will read by 3rd grade,” she added. Policies that attend to the needs of our youngest Minnesotans and support parenting should be a priority.