Joe Nathan Column: Legislators wisely listen to state Teacher of the Year winners
“These teachers have dedicated their lives to serving students and been recognized for outstanding work. As we examine how to improve public policy, it’s important to hear from some of the best of the best. We need to learn from their success.” That’s how state Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, explained a recent hearing he convened at which seven recent Minnesota Teachers of the Year shared suggestions about strengths and priorities for public education.
More than 25 percent of Minnesota state senators, Republicans and Democrats, wisely showed to listen. For several hours, teachers offered thoughtful, concrete, sometimes surprising suggestions, described more fully below. From early childhood to teacher evaluation, thoughtful use of technology, insuring an advocate for each student and high school students taking college courses, these suburban, rural and urban teachers offered clear, often compelling insights from the classroom.
2008 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Derek Olson, of Stillwater Area Public Schools, opened with a discussion of teacher evaluation. He has surveyed teachers throughout the state and found that the majority of teachers favor periodic evaluation. But they are concerned that in many cases neither teachers nor administrators have been trained on how the evaluations will work.
Senators asked about funds available for training through Minnesota’s Q Comp (quality compensation) program, which was designed to encourage retraining and more funding for successful teachers. Olson explained that some districts do not have Q Comp funds. Several legislators agreed that making training available should be a high priority.
Olson noted the value of mentoring younger teachers. He called it a “double bang for the buck” because both the mentee and mentor benefit.
Jackie Roehl, the 2012 state Teacher of the Year, from Edina High School, continued the theme of teachers helping teachers. She described many benefits of teachers reviewing the ways they teach. She urged legislators to provide schools with the flexibility to hold these meetings regularly. Like several others, she stressed that some good things can be done without more money, if schools have flexibility about how to use it.
Megan Hall, Minnesota’s 2013 Teacher of the Year from St. Paul Public Schools, focused her testimony of the value of high school students earning college credit. She had done this herself while in high school. Hall summarized extensive research showing the benefit for students and families. She encouraged legislators to provide “startup funds” for these courses and stressed the importance of making sure a variety of students knew about them. Again, several legislators strongly agreed.
Katy Smith, 2011 Teacher of the Year from Winona, praised legislators for providing more financial support to early childhood education. She briefly reviewed research. Then Smith told legislators she and other Minnesotans had been “waiting a long, long time” for the increased funding that the 2014 Legislature provided to early childhood programs.
Two teachers, 2002 Teacher of the Year Barb Stoflet, from Hopkins, and 2007 Teacher of the Year Michael Smart, from Intermediate District 287, testified together, describing many benefits technology can offer when used skillfully. They stressed that emerging technology is not a substitute for teachers.
But technology can provide more personalized learning and more student success. It can help students and teachers know each other better.
2006 state Teacher of the Year Lee-Ann Stephens, from St. Louis Park, stressed the need for every student to have a person in the building who is an advocate. She believes it’s vital for all students that Minnesota have a greater diversity of teachers. She also stressed the positive impact that schools can have on students, including those coming from low-income families.
Wiger chairs the Senate Finance subcommittee that deals with E-12 education. He and Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Senate’s Education Committee, affirmed after the hearing that they plan to follow up on a number of the teachers’ suggestions. As Torres Ray told me: “These are very talented teachers. We need to listen to them.” I agree.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected].