Ms. Alexis Mann joins us today to talk about her work teaching through the pandemic with at-risk students and her take on the teacher’s union strike in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Can you give us an idea of what teaching through the pandemic has looked like for you up to this point?
I work at a federal alternative school with all of the students who are identified with an emotional or behavior disorder disability. This is the highest level you can receive as a student in a school with a disability.
They are the most at-risk students academically and safety-wise. We do not have a large population of students, but they have gone through the system to be assigned to this school. They have heavy trauma-filled backgrounds. Some are homeless or highly mobile. This school is a safe space for our students. When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, our kids were not ready for that. Not having access to their teachers in person when they wanted was a culture shock for them.
I had Google classroom before and easily transitioned to distance learning. We thought carefully through what would serve our students best and decided that blocks of time with a group of teachers would help them avoid having to click around a lot. We were all on together in morning blocks and afternoon blocks. Each teacher had 30 minutes. Students spent a lot of time online, but we had better attendance because they were anxious to see their teachers. Overall, I think we had a successful end to our school year, despite the challenges.
At the beginning of the 2020 – 2021 school year, the cracks started to show. There were some kids that never logged on. Those are the ones I was really worried about. Almost a whole school year went by and they didn’t receive instruction or access to learning because they didn’t get online. The kids that did log in got antsy. We had a lot of drop off. They might sit and listen but they didn’t do any assignments. I attribute that to the trauma of learning in a new type of setting.
We came back in person prior to the end of the 2020 school year and finally got to meet some of the kids. But the ones who hadn’t logged in before didn’t have a relationship with the school, staff, or peers. It was too little, too late and they stopped coming.
This school year has been the most challenging of my career. The kids are here for the food and the fellowship. (And not as much for the food, because they complain about it a lot.) They are here to be around their peers and be kids, not really to learn. We have very little work completion in our classrooms. We can’t get them to do a project or complete an assignment. There are way more safety issues this year than any other year. Students are not really engaged in learning.
What keeps you on the job?
My students! I have a passion for working with these students because this is their last stop for adulthood. I’m from a community and background that is very similar to that of the kids I work with. I feel for these kids. I can see myself in these kids. I had family to help me understand how to have a better life, and I’m here to do that for these kids. I like to get in as much academics as I can, but if I can’t do that, I want to help them work on social and emotional stuff to help them manage their challenges.
I’m good at teaching high school kids how to read. That keeps me here, working with these kids. I know they need to be able to read to be successful. I want to work with the kids that need me the most.
Have there been any positives to your experience with pandemic teaching?
We were able to introduce our kids to accessing technology outside of social media. They need to know how to do more than check their DMs. These tools will help them be successful in the 21st century. The more we can expose them to those tools, the more we can set them up for success.
For some kids, the online option gave them more flexibility to access learning. If it wasn’t safe for them to travel to school that day, they could still continue their education. It’s not ideal, but it does make things possible that weren’t before.
21st-century technology skills are necessary. Our kids need more exposure to the skills they need to compete in today’s fast-changing world.
What’s happening in your district right now?
We are currently on strike in our district.
Teachers want better working conditions, better pay, and more affordable healthcare coverage. We want to feel safe in our schools and classrooms. We want job security, and we want more teachers of color on staff to help increase academic outcomes for our students.
Currently, approximately 66% of the students in MPS are students of color, yet only approximately 33% of the teachers are teachers of color. The record number of students and families leaving the district should send a strong message about the changes that need to be made.
What do you want the public to know?
First, I would pay attention to what is not being said. The public needs to know that educators in Minneapolis are in a fight for our livelihood. There are political interests tied to what is happening that are bigger than salary increases and safe and stable schools. This strike stems from historic statutory provisions that were in place to protect teacher seniority, which has since been struck down. In my opinion, one item of concern that keeps getting left at the bargaining table has to do with recruiting and keeping teachers of color in the school system.
Minnesota suffers from huge disparities in the education of children of color, and I believe this strike is further hurting this population of students.
I really miss my students, and I am worried about the toll it is taking on them. Right now I am spending my time preparing for our students to return to the classroom and creating customized programming for them that addresses the trauma they are experiencing from not being in school.
I encourage members of the community to get more involved and stay informed. Also, it would be a really good idea to demand transparency from both sides so folks can make more informed decisions.
The number of students leaving the district significantly contributes to the financial squeeze we have been experiencing, considering that our district revenue is generated from our student count.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced teaching through the pandemic?
Learning how to use technology and integrate my lessons into an online format with teaching through the pandemic.
You get to be Supreme Admin for the day. You get to change one thing in your school. What is it?
I would implement more social-emotional skill-building opportunities. Our students have been identified as having significant behavioral and/or emotional issues that interfere with their ability to make academic progress, so instead of building in the support during classroom instruction, I would dedicate space and time to help students build up soft skills and work on self-awareness and self-regulation skills. My thinking is that implementing targeted social-emotional learning opportunities would allow students to better engage in their course work and boost work completion willingness.
Share this post!