“I have a group of middle school students who will be interviewing me right after this,” said Dr. Theresa Battle, District 191 school superintendent. “They have a newscast that their media specialist helps to coordinate. Let’s see if your questions are as good as their questions.”
Battle said her passion for her work is a result of her experiences growing up in Philadelphia as the youngest in her family with five older brothers. “I think it was focused on what I was seeing happening to Black males,” she said. “Just seeing the impact of bias and racism against them.”
As a child who always followed the rules, she noticed how people responded to those who didn’t. By seventh grade she felt she wanted to work with children with emotional or behavioral challenges.
“I thought I wanted to be a child psychiatrist or psychologist, and actually that’s the major I declared when I went to Hampton University,” she said. “I’m very smart, but for some reason I didn’t quite make the connection that that was a medical degree until I was in that freshman biology [class] with all those pre-med students, and I said, ‘Oh, I think I need a little counseling.’” She then narrowed her focus to becoming a special education teacher.
District 191 includes Eagan, Burnsville and Savage. Battle brings to the position a career in education that spans over 35 years, during that time she was a teacher (8 years), an administrator, an assistant principal, a principal and an assistant director of curriculum.
She has worked in various school districts including St. Paul (for 22 years), Osseo and Minneapolis. She also worked at the University of Minnesota developing Ramp-Up to Readiness, a statewide college prep program.
In her current role, Battle says she feels she’s being true to her original desire to help and support others. “You have to look at the whole person, see the humanity in everybody, and that they can really fulfill their purpose. Every role I’ve had has that goal in mind.”
The questions that the middle schoolers prepared for her interview: “They want to know what is the scariest thing that has ever happened to me? Who do you think is the most important person alive today? I’m still grappling with that.” They also wanted to know what she would erase if she had the power to do so. Her response: bias.
“Our public education system, you know, was not built for people who look like me. It was not built for Black people, American Indians, women, other People of Color. We are still going against this barrier of systemic racism and all of the gender bias, and so that for me is always the challenge.”
In Philadelphia she had several Teachers of color, including her kindergarten teacher who was a Black women. The historically Black college she attended was welcoming with a culture of high expectations, achievement, support and mentoring, and it offered culturally responsive teaching.
Though District 191 is made up of 35%White students, 27 % students of African descent, 15 % Latinos, biracial students, and approximately .05 % American Indians, “in no way does our staff mirror the demographics,” Battle said. In Minnesota, she realized, “some of our children will go through the whole K-12 system without having a teacher who looks like them.”
The district is currently engaged in efforts to diversify the staff. They have cultural liaisons and paraprofessionals who are American Indian and People of Color who they are supporting and encouraging to obtain an education degree.
“I believe the Teachers of Color that we need are right in our classrooms, right now,” Battle says of the district’s students. In an effort to grow their own teachers, they offer child development classes for their high school students and have a Future Teachers of America Club where students learn the different roles they could have in an education profession. Many of the students in the club are Students of Color.
Efforts to attract teachers of color, retain paraprofessionals, and reach students are aimed at developing the future teaching force of the district. However, “You also need to make sure that your White educators in our classroom and support staff are culturally proficient,” Battle said. “That’s part of my role. I don’t see it as a challenge. I see it as my work.”
She says her goal is to ensure that at a point in the future when she leaves the district, the children will be better off than when she arrived.
“I’m really thrilled to have the honor of being the superintendent,” said Battle. “This is my life’s work. I‘m in a great place and just so happy that I’ve been embraced by the students, families, the board and my staff and the community.”
Vickie Evans-Nash is a contributing writer and former editor in chief at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.