Recent U teaching graduates are learning a tough lesson

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

When Joshua Larson graduated from the University and received his teaching license in early June, he was ready to go out and fulfill the desire to teach that he first realized as an undergraduate.

His graduate coursework and instructional year teaching at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis further solidified his ambition to become a teacher in the Minneapolis public school system.

But as summer continues, Larson and other Master of Education program graduates at the University’s College of Education and Human Development are learning how scarce teaching jobs are in the Minneapolis school district, which is facing its third year of budget cuts.

“The traditional notion is that you do the classes and the student teaching, and a year later you get a job in the school that you were teaching in,” Larson said. “But this year, that does not seem to be the case.”

The Minneapolis Public schools will operate with $28.6 million less for 2003-2004 than for the previous school year. Altogether, cuts in the past three years add to approximately $85 million, according to a budget update from Minneapolis Public Schools.

Due to the cuts, the district reduced its staff by 551 teachers for the 2003-2004 school year.

Placement for new teachers from the Master of Education program had been high up until a year ago, said Rick Beach, a professor of English education in the College of Education and Human Development. Beach said in addition to layoffs, some positions left open by retiring teachers are not being filled, and instead students are placed in other classes.

Although Gov. Tim Pawlenty pledged not to cut K-12 funding, the growing need for extra funding in Minneapolis schools for special education and English as a second language programs means the static level of money allotted to Minneapolis does not go as far each school year. Needs will go up, while necessary funding will not, Beach said.

Similar educational budget squeezes occurred in the 1980s, Beach said, but the policy of lawmakers and the mindset of the public differed then.

“In the 1980s, the governors were willing to step up to the plate and raise taxes,” Beach said. “I am not seeing that now.”

Jobs are more plentiful in suburban schools where budget cuts have not hit as hard, Beach said.

President of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, Linda Runbeck, said spending differences between Minneapolis and suburban school districts stem mainly from bureaucratic glut and inefficient spending.

“Sometimes it takes a deficit to examine spending,” Runbeck said. The Minneapolis school district, she said, needs to be held more accountable with how dollars are spent.

Runbeck said she does not believe a larger need for ESL and special education programs has led to an increased budget need in the city’s schools.

“It is a fallacy to directly equate poverty with difficulties. That is an excuse the inner city has used for a long time,” she said. “Their problems are all self-created.”

Kevin Hohn, a University graduate who has taught in the Minneapolis school district for nine years, said increased class sizes will be detrimental to the learning environment in his classroom at Henry High School.

“It really turns into crowd control,” he said. “You are not going to reach these kids and get any work done.”

Hohn, who also supervises student teachers in the Master of Education program, said along with the lack of jobs for new teachers, tension is building among current teachers.

“The tension and anxiety level in the last year is on everyone’s mind,” Hohn said. “People don’t know if they have jobs or not.”

Having new teachers in the Minneapolis schools encourages a sort of community understanding across socioeconomic levels, Hohn said.

“What’s really lost is the way that different kinds of people can connect,” he said. “There is this sort of cultural exchange. (Teachers and students) are going to miss the chance to see each other and to realize that we aren’t all that different.”

One new teacher said his career is uncertain.

“I have filled out 12 applications,” Larson said. “Now I’m just waiting.”

Larson said he is remaining optimistic and reminds himself he is just starting out.

“This is just a trend,” he said, alluding to both his job hunt and the budgetary state of Minneapolis schools in general.

Still, the task of finding a teaching job in Minneapolis will remain difficult for some time, he said. Not only is there a profound lack of jobs, but there are teachers with more experience who are looking for the same jobs he wants.

“The really bad thing about this is that you are competing with all these people who have eight or 10 years of experience and who just got fired,” Larson said. “It is a very difficult situation.”

Geoff Ziezulewicz is a freelance writer.

The freelance editor welcomes comments at [email protected]