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When push comes to shove, teachers of color are told we aren’t worth it

How can we diversify the profession if educators of color keep getting caught in layoff and excessing cycles and are not offered the protection of their union?

student and teacher
Photo by Natasha Hall on Unsplash

Just passed was the deadline for principals in the Minneapolis Public School (MPS) system to turn in their budgets for next year.

Even amid a potential strike, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 (MFT59) members face another round of layoffs and excessing. A disproportionate number of them are teachers of color. Already, multiple teachers of color have been notified that they’ve been excessed. Union and district leaders have the power to protect them by signing a targeted Memorandum of Agreement outside of Master Agreement mediation. Instead, MFT59 has refused to protect teachers of color until demands for increased pay and smaller class sizes for all members are met.

This problem is not new. Since the mandated integration of Minneapolis schools in the 1970s, the recruitment and retention of Black educators has been deprioritized in the face of budget cuts and union negotiations. The first group of Black educators in Minneapolis protested this issue in 1978 when the union chose to protect senior white teachers over newly hired teachers of color. Although MFT59 from the 1970s is clearly not the same as today, the same vestiges of white supremacy remain in our policies.

MPS is caught in a dangerous cycle of losing teachers of color. Universal policies, such as pay increases – while sorely needed – are not, and have not been, enough to maintain a diverse educator workforce. The question is simple: How can we diversify the profession if educators of color keep getting caught in layoff and excessing cycles and are not offered the protection of their union?

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We need a targeted, equity-based Memorandum of Agreement to protect teachers of color now.

I can’t shake the feeling that we are trapped between two predominantly and historically white institutions. Educators of color don’t even make up a quarter of the population of teachers in Minneapolis, compared to a whopping sixty-two percent of non-white students. Research shows that diverse teachers are good for all students, not just students of color, but MPS and MFT59 have chosen instead to prioritize the same policies that have resulted in the same lopsided outcomes.

Each school submitted a budget, which will determine which positions get cut. While both MPS and MFT59 have publicly stated that they are negotiating on our behalf, it has come to my attention that negotiations won’t continue until after the deadline. How can you negotiate on our behalf and not meet this urgent deadline that is directly related to the future of our jobs?

Nafeesah Muhammad
Nafeesah Muhammad
To add insult to injury, MPS and MFT59 leaders negotiate about the future of our staff and students behind closed doors without our input. Waiting hasn’t worked for us. The time is now for my colleagues to reclaim our district and our union. As they have done for decades, MPS continues to mismanage its budget, leaving educators and families to teach and learn without adequate pay and resources. They have pushed educators to their limits and we must now use our last resort; to go on strike.

I am certainly not arguing against the merits of the teachers’ strike – livable wages, smaller class sizes and safe schools are important. However, the racial discrimination and stereotyping that we face in our schools and a lack of respect for our expertise among our colleagues won’t get better until policies that center our needs are passed. Pay increases alone won’t address this crisis, but intentionally protecting educators of color will.

I am a teacher. I am a Black woman. I am a union member. If the system is not working for people like me, then it is not working at all. By not supporting policies that protect, retain, and increase the number of teachers from diverse backgrounds, we are sending a dangerous message to our student body and we tell Black, Hispanic, Asian and Indigenous teachers that when push comes to shove, our worth ceases to exist.

Nafeesah Muhammad is an education activist and English teacher at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis. She is a candidate for Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president.