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A teacher’s support for the Minnesota tenure lawsuit

Current laws are punishing the rising stars of Minnesota teaching, discouraging future teachers from entering the profession, and robbing children of the education they deserve.

Not too long ago, I was teaching math at a public school just outside the Twin Cities. I loved my job, and I loved my students. Teaching advanced placement statistics, I worked tirelessly to foster strong relationships with students built on trust and high expectations. But when budget cuts rolled around in 2011, I was told I was being laid off. The principal expressed to me how disappointed he was – that he knew I was making a difference in our students’ lives. He fought as hard as he could to keep me, yet was met with one insurmountable roadblock: LIFO.

Nathan Strenge

I was in my second year of teaching. And because of “Last In, First Out” (LIFO) laws, I was first on the chopping block. These laws mandate date of hire as the sole criteria for layoffs, with no consideration for a teacher’s success in the classroom. Tenured teachers remain, irrespective of quality; teachers at the start of their careers or teachers just beginning in the school district – despite years teaching elsewhere – are the first to go. Since being let go, I have experienced much success in the classroom, winning a national teaching honor and being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. I have recently been accepted into the Gates Foundation’s Teacher Advisory Council.

Young teachers prone to layoffs

Current laws are punishing the rising stars of Minnesota teaching, discouraging future teachers from entering the profession, and most important, robbing Minnesota’s children of the education they deserve. With layoffs based solely on seniority, teachers in the first three years of their career – as I was – are extremely prone to layoffs, even if they’re making a difference in the lives of Minnesota kids. And there’s little to incentivize the next generation of teachers to enter the profession and strive for success with so much job insecurity during the start of their career.

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I’m proud, as a teacher, to raise my voice in support of the plaintiff parents who filed Forslund v. Minnesota, the lawsuit challenging our state’s broken teacher employment laws, including LIFO. And I’m not alone. A 2013 MinnCAN poll of Minnesota public school teachers found that more than 80 percent of respondents agreed that effectiveness should play a role in receiving tenure, and more than 70 percent agreed that lack of effectiveness should be grounds for losing it. 

The plaintiffs of Forslund v. Minnesota are demanding a system that protects teachers proven to have the greatest success in the classroom – whether that’s a tenured math teacher with 20 years of experience or a nontenured science teacher with two. This would ensure that the best teachers remain in the classroom – providing the best possible outcomes for students. It would also attract significantly more and better teachers who feel empowered and motivated to succeed.

Whether or not I was good at my job did not determine my future in the Minnesota public school system. We tell our students of the opportunities available to them if they work hard and strive for success. And yet in the very building where we espouse the American dream, it seems to carry no weight. Good teachers grade students based on their effort and the quality of their work. Isn’t it time we judged teachers the same way?

A step in the right direction

Retracting LIFO laws would not be a silver bullet to fix all the problems currently plaguing public education. To suggest otherwise fails to see the deep-rooted flaws of our system. That said, retracting LIFO would be a step in the right direction. It would create an incentive system for talented young people to pursue the teaching profession. It would encourage current teachers to remain engaged, and stay active in professional development.  It would the message that teacher quality is a top priority for student learning, and that we will not forsake a student’s opportunity to have a quality teacher. 

Nathan Strenge now teaches math at the International School of Minnesota. He has won Solution Tree’s national Redefining Excellence in the Classroom Award and has been nominated for Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year.

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If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)