Dwindling Resources, Diminishing Expectations

Twin Cities teachers talk about how their schools and classrooms have changed

JOHN SYLWESTER

Taught public school for 37 years, most of it as a high school history and theater instructor in the Minneapolis system. Retired in 1998.

I started teaching in 1961 in Rushford, Minnesota, down by Winona. I was hired to teach American history and speech. Rushford was easy because the kids were all Norwegian. Then I taught at University High, and that was easy because all the students were college-bound. Then I taught for two years at North High School in Minneapolis, before there was a lot of Jewish flight, and a lot of my students were really bright kids. Then a job opened up at Patrick Henry and that was easy, almost a suburban atmosphere. I was there for 13 years.

Then I went to Roosevelt High just at the beginning of the influx of Asian immigrants. Many only spoke English as a second language. I couldn't say Babe Ruth or Empire State Building or the Vikings without explaining. There were kids from 26 or 27 countries. In my world history class it got to the point where I'd say, "Whatever we talk about, somebody in this room knows more about it than I do. So you tell me if whatever I say is wrong." And I learned so, so much. When I retired in 1998 my classes were an unbelievably mixed bag. I left having had a good career. I retired with absolutely no bad feelings.

 

KAREN SWIGART

Started teaching in 1965; 18 years in Minneapolis, most recently as a math teacher at Seward Montessori.

When I read the story of the Little Red Hen, most of my native English-speaking students have some idea what a hen is and what wheat is. But with my Hmong students, I have to bring in wheat. It's not hard, just time-consuming, which is one of our biggest problems. We just don't have enough time to do what we need to do.

 

MARY SYLWESTER

Has taught English in the Minneapolis public schools for the past 11 years.

I have been teaching for 10 years at North High in Minneapolis. In some ways, kids don't change at all. What kids want to get out of school isn't different. They dream of the future and how to get there, whether that's college or vocational. What are they willing to put into their high school education? For some, there has been a sea change in how their education is regarded, because of family responsibilities.

Students who do not have a job and extended responsibilities are lucky. They can devote time to homework. But they are a shrinking group. For many, school is not their number one priority each day. There are students who need to translate for their parents in court or when they go to the doctor or shopping. In many ways they are functioning as the adults in their families, and they are the parent and teacher for their younger siblings. Many of our students--not just immigrants, but a lot of our students--are the backup daycare if parents need to work and daycare fails. We are seeing students take on so much more that I am competing with their real life for their time and attention. Not that they don't value education, but sometimes keeping their family on track is more important.

A few years ago I had a girl in my advanced placement class who was consistently a half-hour late because her mother had to leave for work and she had to see her younger brothers and sisters off at the bus stop and then come to school. You can't assume with any behavior you know the reason why. If a kid mouths off, maybe he doesn't like you or maybe he's seen his mother beaten up by her boyfriend. You don't have the luxury of just saying, "Well, he mouthed off. I don't want to know any more, he's gone from this hour."

You have to be delicate about it. I go to the school social workers more, because in the end I am responsible for what goes on in my classroom and I am not a trained counselor. But by and large when I have called home, parents are trying to be supportive and want to support me and their children.

Often school is a student's time to get away and be a kid. They love to be kids and go to school because the rest of their responsibilities get shut away for a few hours. Ninety-nine percent of my kids come into class with a smile on their face and want to get something out of it. They like being in school. It's a safe place.

 

LARRY DISHER

Public school teacher for 20 years; has taught elementary school (mostly fifth grade) in the Minneapolis system for 17 years. Currently at Bryn Mawr Community School.

Earlier in my career, we were going on a field trip and I gave a student a slip on Friday. He was supposed to bring it back to me the following Monday. He came back and of course the slip was not signed. Because I didn't know better at the time, I reprimanded him. And he said, "Well, I didn't see my mom, so I couldn't get it signed." It reminded me that we have parents who are there 24/7, and we have others who really need to do a better job of parenting. As teachers we have to do a better job of understanding students' problems and where they are coming from. If we don't understand that, we won't be able to do our job.

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