Why are some talented teachers underused?

Listening to and learning from educators like Megan Hall, Steve Allen and Bill Wilson reminded me last week of two important things. First, they have so much to offer, not only to youngsters, but also to other educators and those learning to be educators. Second, their skills, insights, experience and knowledge are dramatically underused. More youngsters will succeed if we make better use of these and other talented educators.

Let’s start with Allen. He recently retired after more than 35 years teaching in Minnesota public schools, starting in Granite Falls, then in North Branch and then, for 10 years, at its area learning center, a cooperative program with North Branch, Chisago Lakes, Taylors Falls and Rush City. He finished his career at Oak Land, a cooperative of Cambridge, St. Francis and Princeton, for the last 20 years.

Allen worked mostly with youngsters who struggled in traditional schools. He and his students helped convince the 1987 Minnesota legislature to approve new options for these youngsters.

One was a young woman who had been a National Honor Society member and a cheerleader in her rural high school. But during an economic crisis that devastated her farm family, she unfortunately went “looking for love” and became pregnant, so was kicked out of the honor society and cheerleading squad. Fortunately she found the alternative school Allen directed.

She told legislators that the school “probably saved my life.”

Another of Allen’s students told legislators that he was the youngest of a “drinking family.” When he entered the high school, teachers reminded him of his older siblings’ bad behavior. This youngster met their expectations and failed.  Fortunately he found the alternative school. Like the young woman mentioned earlier, he graduated and is living a constructive life.

Allen was president of and now directs the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs. I asked if he had ever been asked to teach a class or even speak to a class of prospective educators. “No,” he replied.

Then there’s Hall, Minnesota’s current state “Teacher of the Year.” She said she’s never been asked to teach a full teacher preparation class. She’s been asked to speak to teacher prep classes at St. Scholastica, Metro State and the University of Minnesota. So the vast majority of Minnesota’s teacher preparation programs haven’t asked her to speak – even once. Having learned from her, I think she has lots to offer.

One more example: Three times, US News and World Report has cited Higher Ground Academy as one of Minnesota’s, and the country’s, top schools. The Star Tribune regularly names it a “Beating the Odds” school. But Bill Wilson, Higher Ground founder and former Minnesota Human Rights commissioner, told me no Minnesota college professor helping prepare teachers or administrators has asked him to speak with a class in the last several years.  (Full disclosure: My office shares space with this school.)

Beating the Odds schools aren’t just those that have high-test scores. They’re also schools, like some of the best alternative public schools, that help previously unsuccessful youngsters identify and develop their talents.

This comes up in part because Hamline University recently hosted a panel on the achievement gap. Several weeks ago, I asked officials there why no panel member was from a Beating the Odds school – either district or charter.

Hamline didn’t respond until the day after the event. JacQui Getty, Hamline’s associate vice president of strategic communications and content, wrote, “You raise a good point. When we do this again, we would certainly be interested in including someone from a Beating the Odds school.”

My concern isn’t just about Hamline. Outstanding local educators often are not included in programs to help the current and next generation of teachers and principals, whether offered by schools or colleges.

Hall told me, “When teachers’ expertise is tapped by district leaders, our schools continuously improve.” Talents like those of Hall, Allen and Wilson should be used more not only by districts, but also by colleges and universities.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org. Columns reflect the opinion of the author. 

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