On Campus: The 4th-grade teacher

tom_mitchell.jpgTom Mitchell of Duluth is all about local. He grew up in Duluth. He’s going to school at Lake Superior College, where I stopped on Wednesday as part of the News Cut on Campus Tour to talk to students about the economy and their futures. He’d like to become a teacher in Duluth, something he says is a passion. His passion comes locally, too.

“I started reading and looking into Paul Wellstone and his passion is what really caught on for me and I’ve become passionate about what I do,” Mitchell told me. “He always said that the future belongs to those who work hard and are passionate and that’s what I want to pass on to the 4th graders I’ll teach some day.”

He says part of growing up is giving back. He has started student-teaching 4th graders. He mentors after school in the Mentor Duluth program. He also organized a drive for faculty and students at the school to make sandwiches for homeless kids in Duluth. He says there are about 50 such youth in Duluth.

He’s not picking the easiest job to make a living at these days. He cites a recent report that says up to 600,000 education jobs might be eliminated nationwide because of state budget cuts. He’s hoping enough teachers will retire by the time he graduates to make a job possible, but he’s concerned many will stay on so that they have health benefits. The Duluth school system is closing schools, eliminating programs, and cutting staff.

Mitchell says he loves the enthusiasm 4th graders have for learning, but he also sees how it is the education system produces kids who aren’t proficient in reading or math. “I’ve seen 2nd and 3rd graders sitting in class all day taking tests, these are 8, 9, and 10-year olds sitting in class taking these high-stakes tests all day long. I’ve also heard teachers aren’t allowed to fail their students, which has some positives but if they’re not ready to move on, that’s going to affect them when they graduate. Are they really ready for college? Are they ready for the working world?”

Mitchell is paying for school with his parents’ help, but says he worries they won’t be able to retire because of the help they’ve provided. He also works part-time at a grocery store to help pay for tuition. His grandfather, who passed away not long ago, also left some help behind. “When his family was growing up, he couldn’t afford to send his kids to college so he worked hard to make sure he could help his grandchildren go to college.”

Mitchell — and his future 4th-graders — are the people politicians talk about when they talk about not leaving more debt for “our children,” but he’s OK with the stimulus package that will come due some time in his life. “You’ve got to spend money to make money,” he said.

And maybe keep a school or two open.

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