Entering his senior year at Burnsville High School, John Hummel, 17, has his sights set on becoming a teacher. He has educator role models in his family. And he’s well-seasoned in playing the role of school champion.
Since the sixth grade, he’s upheld his top-secret role as an elementary school’s mascot who appears at special events and the occasional morning meet and greet.
Given his talent for working with younger kids, his family members are encouraging him to focus on elementary education, he says.
“What I’ve heard is most elementary schools have one, or at most two, if not any, male teachers,” he said, noting that he actually had two male teachers during his elementary years, in gym and music.
But he’s more interested in exploring the possibility of becoming a high school math teacher, he said, since that’s where his academic strengths lie.
For Daniella Fernandez, 16, thoughts of becoming a teacher didn’t strike until last year. She was participating in a discussion with a diverse group of students, she said, and they started talking about how the school doesn’t have a lot of teachers of color.
“Now I’m just really passionate about it,” she said of becoming a teacher. “When you have a teacher that has the same background, or can connect with you, it’s more easy to talk to them. You can relate to them and want to go to the class. You feel more welcome.”
As a native Spanish speaker, she’s interested in teaching Spanish — or maybe art.
For Tyana and Bryana Madder-Sanders, 17-year-old twins, the need to diversify the teacher corps has them both interested in becoming educators as well.
Tyana says she’s interested in teaching history and African-American studies, so the histories of peoples of color aren’t “overpassed,” as is often the case in general history classes.
Bryana says she’s interested in teaching English, because she likes writing. But her main motive for exploring the teaching profession is that teachers of color are under-represented in schools.
“Kids of all races need someone to look up to,” she said.
All of these student reflections were prompted by a visit from Randi Weingarten, president of the national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, on Wednesday afternoon. She was in town to meet with local union leaders and attend a fundraiser event for Julie Blaha’s campaign for state auditor, but wanted to hear from future educators as well — in this case, students enrolled in the district’s new “Introduction to Education” course, offered in partnership with Normandale Community College.
“There used to be lots of high schools that had a perspective teacher group. But with the budget cuts that have happened throughout the country — and the lack of investment in schools, and the disparaging of school teaching — they are few and far between,” Weingarten said in an interview after meeting with students. “One of the reasons we wanted to come to this class, even though it’s the second day, is to say to students: ‘Thank you for a willingness to help mold the future.’”
A teaching pathway aimed at boosting diversity
Nationwide, the teacher corps is lacking in diversity. In Minnesota, the racial imbalance between teachers and students is stark: Teachers of color only make up 4 percent of the teaching corps, while students of color make up roughly a third of the student population, statewide.
There’s also a shortage of teachers who specialize in math, science, the trades, special education and teaching English as a second language.
The Burnsville students Weingarten met with will be exploring these issues, along with getting an overview of what teaching actually entails and some mentoring experience, in the introductory class they’re currently enrolled in. There are 20 students enrolled in the course, with males holding three of those seats and students of color constituting roughly half of the group.
Next semester, they’ll have the option to take its sequel: “Multicultural Education and Human Relations in School.”
These two concurrent enrollment classes are both supported by a “Grow Your Own” grant from the State Department of Education. They’re part of a new career pathway that the district rolled out this year, allowing students with an interest in teaching to explore the field while earning up to seven college credits at the same time — all in the hopes that it’ll entice a more diverse cohort of students to consider teaching, and help them narrow in on a speciality area before they graduate.
Often students don’t even consider teaching as a profession because they don’t see themselves reflected in the role models they encounter at school said Kathy Funston, director of strategic partnerships and pathways for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District. And even though students are immersed in school, teaching isn’t always an obvious career option because “teachers often don’t talk about the profession of teaching — it’s just something we do each and every day,” she added.
Hayley Ohama and Matt Deutsch, co-teachers of the two new teacher pathway courses offered at Burnsville High School, are tasked with doing just this: cluing students in to the rewards of teaching, both personally and professionally.
“Kids don’t see teaching as the amazing career that it is,” Deutsch said. “I think showing them that part is really important — through our passion and the joy that we get from it.”
At the end of the year, students will be invited to participate in a signing event, modeled after similar ceremonies for student athletes. The send-off ritual began this past spring, with 14 senior members of the school’s Future Teachers of America club who plan to become teachers.
“In the end, we really hope all of the students who go through this program come back to us and teach,” Funston said.