First of a two-part story
The Minneapolis Public Schools District is currently engaged in planning a significant district-wide reorganization, much of which is intended to address the stubborn and, for African American students, disastrous racial gaps in achievement. While much of the onus for addressing this problem rightly rests with the District, it is not the only party in the educational process that must do some soul-searching over what needs to change.
A significant player in this process is the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT). While the MSR will continue to report on the proposed district changes, we thought a closer look at issues between teachers of color and the union that represents them might contribute to our understanding of the intransigent barriers to justice and equity in education.
When most people think of teachers unions, they think of picket signs reflecting issues like higher teacher pay or smaller class size. The MSR spoke with teachers in Minneapolis on quite another subject, teachers who feel their union is not doing enough to support them and in turn the students they teach.
The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT 59) represents all licensed professionals, including licensed teachers and related service professionals. The relationship between the teachers that we spoke with and MFT started out on the wrong foot.
Both Pauline Cotton and Alexis Mann are currently teachers at Harrison High School, but they both say that during their first year they had concerns about their jobs (they were at Bryn Mar and North respectively then, not Harrison) that they brought to MFT. “I reached out to them, and they said if you’re not tenured, we really can’t do a whole lot,” said Cotton. “And so after that I kind of just never really bothered with them anymore.”
Mann says that even a meeting or a phone call would have shown some effort toward supporting her as a new teacher, but because during the first year teachers are at-will employees there is little support and little protection. “This is a common problem,” Mann says, “so common that people become detached from the issues.”
Nafeesah Muhammad has been a teacher for six years, five at North High School. This current school year she is at Patrick Henry. Muhammad first met with MFT as a part of a new-hire orientation where teachers are asked to become members.
She signed up to be a full MFT member. Since that time, she says, “I have not been super involved with the union mostly because they haven’t been involved in my life much.”
Her second contact with MFT was during her third year at North. She and a couple of colleagues of color worked on the equity team. They recorded a group of seniors talking about their experiences at North and showed it as part of professional development for teachers.
One teacher felt the presentation was an attack on her ability to teach students of color, and she shared her views with students in the classroom. Muhammad and the teachers of color went to administration, but did not receive support, so they turned to the union to file a complaint.
Since they were lodging their complaints against a tenured teacher, the union could offer no help. One of Muhammad’s colleagues left after the incident. “It seemed like the union was just perpetuating this White Supremacist theology about who gets protected and who doesn’t.”
In September of 2019, Muhammad went to a bargaining session between the district and the union. The district was asking the union to change its interview and selection policy where teachers, based on seniority, are guaranteed two rounds of internal hiring. If they are not hired at the schools they chose, they are placed in open spots in the district. The district asked for one round of interviews and then opening it up to external applicants in an effort to hire more teachers of color.
“Other suburban areas, they understand that you need teachers of color, and they are snatching them up quickly,” says Muhammad. “So by the time we open it up to the public externally all of the teachers are mostly hired.”
The union refused the district’s request, even when one of the district staff explained that in some instances interviewing the most senior teachers is fruitless.
For instance, in schools where English Language Learning is a priority, administrators are specifically looking for teachers fluent in Somali, Spanish or Hmong that senior teachers are less likely to bring to the profession. Muhammad said that during a caucus break for union members only they discussed the comments and compared them to reverse racism.
“I realized a long time ago that [MFT staff] are not looking out for the best interests of the community and the students they serve,” says Muhammad. “It is just bread-and-butter issues—salary, health care, grievances, things like that. But they have no kind of social justice/equity agenda, especially in the school district that we serve that has one of the largest achievement gaps.”
In an effort to give MFT 59 a chance to respond to their members’ claims, the MSR made repeated attempted to speak with one of their officers. This included five emails, two to their secretary and three to their teacher chapter president Michelle Wiese, with the second vice president, Jill Jacobson copied in one. We made four phone calls; two were voicemails and twice we spoke with their secretary, Greta Callahan.
We sent a few questions to Callahan so that she could gauge whether she would be comfortable answering questions in Wiese’s stead. After more than five weeks of attempts, we finally received an email from President Michelle Wiese responding to our questions to Callahan; however, she declined an interview. We reluctantly include her emailed responses in lieu of an interview to allow the MFT some voice in this story.
About their efforts in diversifying teaching staff, Wiese responded, “Sadly, MFT is not the hiring nor firing body of Minneapolis Public Schools. Nevertheless, we advocate for the district to hire and retain as many educators of color as they are able to find.
“In fact, every time we sit at the bargaining table we champion the idea of recruiting at Historically Black Universities and Tribal Colleges. We believe that our students deserve to be reflected in their teachers. We believe the teaching ranks should reflect the student ranks.
“The MFT does work to retain every educator of color the district does hire,” Wiese continued. “We do that in many ways. For example this contract cycle we put forth the MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] asking the district to protect educators of color by allowing layoffs out of seniority order.
“The Union also has an Educator of Color Affinity group. The group meets monthly to offer support to one another and serves as a feedback loop for the board. We are also bringing in Education Minnesota to deliver racial equity professional development to our members,” wrote Wiese.
Next week: Teachers of color describe ways they feel the union can better support diversity among the MPS teaching staff.
Vickie Evans-Nash is a contributing writer and former editor in chief at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.