Minneapolis education support professionals Catina Taylor and Tequila Laramee at a press conference announcing a strike authorization on February 23. Higher pay for education support professionals, or ESPs, was a key demand in the three-week strike. Educators wanted to see ESPs earn a living wage—and they hoped a higher wage would lead to better staff retention. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Educators’ and students’ hopes for a “normal” school year, after two years of pandemic interruptions, were dashed just weeks into 2022. In January, many districts temporarily closed buildings and shifted to remote learning. Too many teachers were sick with COVID-19’s Omicron variant to hold classes in person. Those absences compounded an existing staff shortage: Many districts struggled to find enough adults to supervise children, let alone teach them.

The shift to distance learning felt like a setback to many teachers and students. It marked the first major sign of an educator shortage that became a theme throughout the year.

1. Classroom duties are piling up. Mental health needs are skyrocketing. But pay hasn’t budged. Why Minneapolis and St. Paul educational assistants are ready to strike.

In March, Minneapolis teachers and education support professionals went on strike for three weeks, shutting down schools yet again. One of the biggest reasons for the walkout was the staffing shortage. Low pay for education support professionals, combined with difficult working conditions and higher pay in the private sector, meant that schools had trouble hiring support staff. 

A Sahan Journal data request found that in February, 22 percent of all education support professional positions in Minneapolis Public Schools remained vacant. That staffing squeeze meant more work for teachers, who found themselves filling in for absent colleagues during free hours and not having the support they needed in the classroom.

After three weeks on strike, educators and district officials reached a temporary agreement on a new contract. Education support professionals secured raises, bonuses, and additional hours that added up to pay increases that union leaders called “historic.”

Striking educators also pressed the Minnesota legislature to allocate more funds to education. At the time, the state had a $9.25 billion surplus. But the divided legislature—Republicans controlled the state Senate, while Democrats led the House—could not agree on how to spend it, and left most of the surplus unspent.

2. ‘We shouldn’t have to separate being Black from our profession’: A Minneapolis teacher weighs the cost of battling the white education hierarchy—and her own union.

With the contract settled, Minneapolis students and teachers returned to class in late March. But Nafeesah Muhammad, an English teacher at Patrick Henry High School, did not. She wasn’t sure whether she would return at all. The process of negotiating protections for teachers of color left her feeling like neither the union nor the district had her back. 

Muhammad knew how much her departure would affect her school community. “The job that we do, especially Black educators, educators of color: It’s a different job,” she said. “When I’m quitting, I’m not just quitting delivering curriculum and having a classroom community. I’m quitting being a mentor. I’m quitting being a role model. I’m quitting being a counselor. I’m quitting being maybe a food shelf if the kids need snacks and food.”

Ultimately, she returned to finish the school year. But this summer, she left. She’d always felt supported by her principal, Yusuf Abdullah. Over the summer, he left Henry to become an associate superintendent. Muhammad didn’t want to stay without him.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s the leader that keeps us, not the district,” she told me recently. “That’s a very vulnerable place for a lot of teachers of color.”

Muhammad is now the deputy director of campaigns for the advocacy group Educators for Excellence–Minnesota. She misses her teens, and hopes she can someday return to the classroom. “I’m just trying to figure out what that would look like on my own terms,” she said.

3. Two years ago, Qorsho Hassan became the first Somali American to win Minnesota Teacher of the Year. In June, Qorsho announced she’s leaving the classroom. What happened?

When Qorsho Hassan won the award for Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2020, she became a role model not just for her own students, but students across Minnesota. Qorsho was the first Somali American teacher to win the prestigious honor.

But in the summer of 2022, she left the classroom. She told me she was depleted from trying to confront overwhelming systemic problems one child at a time, without proper support.

“We’ve been tasked with the impossible job of fighting systemic racism,” she said. “I haven’t just been able to teach. If I were, I could see myself teaching for 10 or 20 more years. But I don’t do the same work as my white colleagues.”

In 2021, the Minnesota legislature tripled its funding to recruit and retain teachers of color. Qorsho’s journey is unique. But many educators of color leaving the classroom expressed similar themes. You can read more here.In November, Qorsho announced through a Sahan Journal op ed that she is now the executive director of Thrive Ed, a nonprofit that works to empower student voice in schools. You can read about why she left teaching here, and about her next steps here.

4. Is ‘ethnic studies’ an attempt to indoctrinate Minnesota’s schools with anti-American values? We visited a classroom in Rochester to find out.

Qorsho was not the only recent Minnesota Teacher of the Year to announce she was leaving the classroom this summer. Natalia Benjamin, who received the honor in 2021, becoming the first person with Latin American heritage to win, taught English language learners and ethnic studies at Rochester’s Century High School. This summer, she left the classroom for district leadership, becoming Rochester Public Schools’ coordinator of multi-language learning.

Before Benjamin left her teaching position, we visited her Rochester classroom to see what ethnic studies class actually looks like—away from the cable news talking points. The answer may surprise you. You can read about our visit here.

5. Worried about teacher shortages in Minnesota? School districts have an answer: Come apply for a job.

As school resumed this fall, some districts scrambled to fill positions for teachers and educational support professionals. St. Paul held a virtual hiring fair, hoping to recruit anyone with passion and a bachelor’s degree to become a district teacher. Teacher shortages in Minneapolis were exacerbated because the strike delayed the hiring timeline. The strike also burnt out some educators—like Muhammad.

But not every district had trouble filling positions. Two weeks before school started, Wayzata Public Schools, on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, had only five teaching vacancies open. “We will get them all filled,” a spokesperson wrote.

What’s next?

So what’s next for education in 2023?

This fall, Democrats won trifecta control of state government—that is, the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature. DFL leaders tell me they support a “substantial increase” in school funding. However, they’re not yet aligned on specifics.

Since I published that story, the projected state surplus has ballooned even more, nearly doubling to $17.6 billion. And that includes a possible mild recession.

Specifics from lawmakers remain elusive, but in a statement after the new budget forecast was released, Governor Tim Walz reiterated that investing in schools would be a priority.

In the new year, I’ll be watching as lawmakers’ plans for education take shape—and how those plans may affect teachers and students of color.

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Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...