The bleak view of a ‘tough’ Minneapolis school

Kirsten Ragatz paints a bleak picture of the life of a teacher in Minneapolis’ “toughest” schools.

Writing in today’s Star Tribune, Ragatz, who has taught for 20 years, was responding to an earlier Strib article that the poorest schools get the “rookie” (and by innuendo, worst) teachers.

There’s a reason for that, Ragatz writes, the teachers with seniority leave after burning out on the emotional toll of trying to meet the needs of the kids presented to them.

Working with at-risk children is deeply satisfying and often joyful, but sometimes it will break your heart. When your kindergartners play “duck and cover” and “call 911, my boyfriend is coming over to kill me,” you know that they have needs that you may not be able to address. After a few years of this, a devoted teacher may be emotionally exhausted and might reasonably decide to move to another school where she is less likely to burn out.

One year, of the children who started kindergarten with me on the first day of school, only three were still there on the last day. Every two or three weeks all year long, I lost a student and gained one, all the way through May. That was one of my most difficult years. By then I was a mother, had less time on evenings and weekends, and wanted to work someplace where I would have enough energy left to bring home to my own children.

It’s not the lack of money for doing the task, she says, it’s the lack of support:

They should work under experienced, supportive and talented principals whom they can trust; have a full staff of social workers and psychologists to help serve the children and their families, and work in a healthy and caring school culture. They should have small class sizes, as well as support staff working with them in their classrooms. Their schools should have effective behavior staff and school behavior plans that actually work to minimize disruption while keeping children in class and learning.

In response, a commenter, who says he/she worked at North High for five years, offers an additional snapshot.

I taught students who had psychotic parents who threw away all of their belongings or kept them up all night cleaning the house. I have taught groups of students where every student in the room had been homeless at one time AND had an incarcerated family member AND knew someone who had been shot or had shot someone. Those life experiences were universal. I love also that you point out that all of your students are loved, which is so true. My students too, ALL of their parents and family members loved them and cared deeply about their school success. This love and care just does not translate into the skills & privilege needed to provide a home life free of violence, homelessness, participation in the underground economy, and all of the other impacts of poverty.

  • Jim G

    I volunteer at an inner ring suburban school which has many students whose parents opt to send them out of the Minneapolis district. I read to and with Kindergarten through second graders. At the end of February, two told me that they were moving. I told them I would miss them and they should continue to practice their reading. Providing stability for kids, which is one of my volunteer program’s goals, is a precious commodity out of reach for many parents working at minimum wages in a region that has a dearth of affordable housing.

    • David

      As a non-expert who is about to begin a volunteer program (at a city library homework center) I think this is one of the best things “anyone” can do. You are providing stability and a healthy role model for each kid you get to interact with.

      • Jim G

        If you can read and do elementary math, contact your district’s volunteer coordinators. They will be happy to give you information on the programs in their schools.

  • Al

    We talk about heroes being the ones running toward burning buildings while the rest of us run away. These teachers are such heroes, too, and give these kids a fighting chance.

    It’s frustrating that so much of the dialogue around teaching centers on tests and pay scales, rather than the social factors that play such an integral role in educational disparities–race, wealth, location, health… Our government is so fragmented and short-sighted that I fear it impossible to address these problems holistically–which is what these kids need, rather than a piecemeal approach of school reform on this day, and health care reform on the next…

  • Chris

    It’s as if we’ve been duped into discussing which schools are great, which are failing, testing teachers, etc., so we don’t discuss the income equality and failing economy that is really behind why schools in Edina or Woodbury are called great and some schools in Minneapolis are called failing.