Could this be the key to education reform, all wrapped up in the words of a Minneapolis high school student named Ja’Meyah? Here, Ja’Meyah responds to a question from one of her teachers, Josh Zoucha:
“When you get to know people, and they make you want to come to school, and they make you want to do right, then you start to do right, and you start to like it, and you start to enjoy coming to the place, and you don’t want to do nothing to lose those people and make them stop liking you, so you gotta be good, you know? And you gotta come to school because they want to see you just as much as you want to see them.”
Image from the Minneapolis Teachers Institute
Josh was asking Ja’Meyah to reflect on why she was coming to school more, and why she had zero suspensions this year, but 14 last year. He also asked Ja’Meyah about her absences:
“Last year, in the fall, you had 48 absences. And, you had only earned 2.75 credits and 7 days of suspension….This year you’ve earned 14.5 credits…and 0 days of suspension. What’s the difference between last year and this year?”
Josh recorded his interaction with Ja’Meyah, and on the recording, it is clear the two have a bond. Their interaction is casual, familiar. Love-based.
But not accidental.
Josh participated this year in the Minneapolis Teachers Institute (MTI), a year-long, voluntary professional development program for Minneapolis teachers. It was created by long-time education practitioner Lisa Arrastia, and funded by the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Office of Equity and Diversity.
Part of Josh’s task as an MTI fellow this year was to develop a close relationship with one of his students at Minneapolis’ Edison High School, where he works, and that student was Ja’Meyah. Here is how Josh describes the assignment, and its impact:
…(MTI) asked us to partner/adopt a student for the year. We had guided questions and documented our discussions for the year by journaling, recording, and asking deeper questions about life. My students name is Ja’Meyah…and she has made some of the greatest gains towards graduation in our program. As of September no one believed she was going to graduate and as of right now she is at the very least going to walk and most likely graduate, which in her own words is a miracle. I believe this is not only because of the…program at Edison but also the relationships that were built within the process of MTI.
Teaching today can seem like a blood sport, with teacher-baiting the main form of entertainment. Politicians and edu-experts everywhere can often be found gleefully smacking their lips and placing bets on this:
NJ governor Chris Christie, putting a teacher in her place
How much can we belittle and demean those lazy, union-loving thugs who choose to enter the classroom and work with kids before they cry uncle and limp away?
Josh even touches on this, in a letter he wrote in defense of the MTI–which is, sadly, on the chopping block in Minneapolis. The district has deemed it “too expensive,” and has shut down the department–the Office of Equity and Diversity–that funded the MTi.
“Education has a high burnout rate, and I have felt it, but after this year (with MTI), I have felt refreshed, renewed, and it has honestly been one of my favorite years in education.”
In place of the MTI, which offers a project-based, love-focused approach to education reform, Minneapolis administrators have proposed a cheaper, faster alternative, using “culturally relevant pedagogy training.”
In response, MTI fellows have flooded the district, and school board members, with impassioned testimonials on behalf of the MTI. Like this, from Minneapolis high school teacher Morgan Fierst:
The stresses, pressures, and violence that students and teachers face on a daily basis are profound and cannot be ignored. The Minneapolis Teacher’s Institute is the only real professional development that I have come across during my tenure in the profession. MTI is the only professional development that has stopped me from seeking a new career, but more importantly, the only PD that has rejuvenated my spirit and grounded me so I could reconnect with my passion and energy for this work. I know many people are concerned about getting rid of the “bad” teachers in our district. I understand and appreciate this concern. But I think we need to be just as mindful, if not more, about keeping our great ones.
I beg of you to reconsider this decision and learn more about MTI and bring it back to our school district. We (teachers, students, administrators, families) need it!
MPS administrators then settled on a form response to these letters from teachers. Here is an excerpt from it:
Thank you for your email regarding the positive experience you’ve had with the Minneapolis Teacher Institute. It’s always great to hear how MPS professional development opportunities impact teaching and learning.
As you noted, MPS will no longer provide MTI for subsequent teacher cohorts. However, MPS is committed to continuing the critical work we’ve been doing to ensure teachers and our school leaders are provided with the skills they need to be responsive to the needs of all our students, and especially our students of color.
Because of this, the district is moving toward a PD model that will reach more teachers, faster.
In another note to Minneapolis school board members, Minneapolis’s “CAO” (or, Chief Academic Officer) Susanne Griffin told board members about the district’s prefab response to inquiries about the MTI, and prefaced it this way:
Below is a response that can be used for any inquiry into the status of the district’s professional development plans around cultural responsive teaching.
Because the current model for the Minneapolis Teacher Institute is not cost effective, the district has decided to provide culturally responsive professional development in house so that more teachers can be trained faster.
“A response that can be used for any inquiry” is probably not a response that anyone wants to read. And, reaching more teachers, faster, might look good on paper, but will it be satisfying?
Here’s what one teacher has to say about that:
In my tenure as a teacher, I have attended many PD’s and often after the moment it started wondered when it was going to end, just hoping to get something out of it. With MTI, I was always disappointed when it was over. I have attended different cultural responsive trainings in the past but have never been a part of anything like MTI. I know I have been changed through my experience with MTI, I will forever be proud to call myself an MTI alum and I can’t express my disappointment that no one else will have this opportunity.
I wonder what students like Ja’Meyah would have to say about this, given the opportunity.