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An inspiring teacher’s story, and how the MN licensing system prevents diversity of teacher corps

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An inspiring teacher’s story, and how the MN licensing system prevents diversity of teacher corps

May 27, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Melissa Whitler
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An inspiring teacher’s story, and how the MN licensing system prevents diversity of teacher corps
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Rachel Stewart, the physical education teacher at Hall STEM Academy, with some of her students. Photo courtesy of Sherrill Lindsey.

A version of this story was first published by Minneapolis Schools Voices. 

Rachel Stewart is exactly the type of person who Minneapolis Public Schools says it wants to hire as a teacher.

She has a connection to the community and its students, having worked for more than 20 years in the district as an education support professional. She wants to work at Hall STEM Academy, an elementary magnet school in north Minneapolis — a school that the district considers “hard to staff.” And, she was excited to fill the role of physical education teacher that had been vacant for five years. Stewart is also Black, like a majority of the students at Hall.

By all accounts, she’s been a remarkable presence in the lives of her students. She’s  introducing them to lifelong physical, emotional and social skills, with the assist of partnerships she’s formed with community groups to help students learn how to swim, ride bike, ski and play tennis. 

And yet her future as a Minnesota teacher is uncertain because she’s ensnared in the state’s byzantine licensing system, which can be particularly unforgiving on candidates from non-traditional teaching backgrounds. 

Stewart’s career as a PE teacher came about out of sheer necessity — and her commitment to the students at Hall. When a physical education position went unfilled, a substitute teacher filled in each day. Stewart was the school’s family and community liaison at the time, and she says sometimes students were handed basketballs during gym class and told to play — with little or no instruction.

“It infuriated me,” Stewart said. “Our kids can do more than play basketball.”

Watching students miss out on consistent, high-quality physical education motivated Stewart — in her previous role as family and community liaison — to develop a curriculum and lesson plans for the substitute teachers to follow with the support of the school’s principal, Sherrill Lindsey.

Lindsey credits Stewart with finding community partners to support the physical education program who weren’t just looking for a “feel good moment,” but who “are aligned with our purpose and our mission.” Stewart was so successful in building these connections that Lindsey says others in the district seek out Stewart for advice on building their own connections to community groups in Minneapolis.

“It’s a passion of hers,” Lindsey said. “And it’s also a commitment to making sure our kids have every opportunity that they might not otherwise have.”

Stewart applied for the physical education teacher position. After she was hired, she obtained a teaching license called a Tier 1 license that’s designed for people who haven’t completed a traditional teacher preparation program. 

With Stewart as their teacher this year, students have had the opportunity to learn to swim, ride bikes, play pickleball — which she says they call “cucumber ball” — and much more through community partnerships.

“Our kids learn how to play golf. They learn how to ski. They go over to Loppet for field trips,” Stewart said. “Inner City Tennis became one of our partners, and the kids go over to the dome and play. Whatever I taught, there was always a field trip piece to it where kids can get out into the community and do all of these things.”

Students have gained more than physical skills. Stewart has taught them the rules of the games, strategy and keeping score. Her students have learned valuable lessons about sportsmanship, cooperation and being a teammate.

“I went into a position that was needed and I kind of fell in love with it,” Stewart said. “I know it’s not just about kickball. I know that the kids are going to use these skills as they move forward in their life.”

And, unlike in previous years, students at Hall have had the consistent presence of the same teacher each class.

“She brings in such a level of high engagement and also she’s so relational,” Lindsey said of Stewart. “She maintains a high level of expectations of what our kids can do. Through her persistence and their persistence our kids have done things in physical education that they didn’t think they’d be able to do. And maybe they’ve never had the opportunity to do.”

For Stewart, watching her students learn and succeed is the best part of her job.

“They can learn anything and they can do anything. That’s what I love about the job. Introducing them to all of these new things and then watching them thrive at it. It makes my heart feel so good,” Stewart said. “They don’t even ask for basketballs anymore.”

An inspiring teacher’s story, and how the MN licensing system prevents diversity of teacher corps
Mr. Joe Ciesielczyk, adventure coordinator with Loppet, provides biking instruction to Hall students in their physical education class, led by Rachel Stewart. Photo courtesy of Rachel Stewart.

Running into a wall — the licensing system

Despite her success, Stewart has been caught up in a web of hiring and licensing systems that are often barriers for teachers of color, particularly Black teachers. 

In March, Stewart was “excessed” — district jargon for when a teacher loses their current position the following school year.

Under the educators’ collective bargaining agreement, her Tier 1 license doesn’t provide her with the right to remain in her position year to year. Statewide, nearly 30% of all Black teachers have a license like Stewart’s that requires them to reapply for their jobs each year, while less than 5% of white teachers have such a license.

Stewart says she wasn’t informed by the state or district that her license and position wouldn’t be ongoing. Initially, Stewart was told she would have to wait until July to reapply for her position and her license. While she waited, current teachers in the district with continuing licenses could apply for and fill the position. While the district extended Stewart a job offer for next school year as Hall’s physical education teacher, the experience has driven her to consider leaving all together.

“I told [Hall’s principal] I’m not coming back. It’s over. I’m not going to keep fighting to teach in this position that no one else wants,” Stewart said.

For Lindsey and the students at Hall, if Stewart doesn’t return, it would be a significant loss.

“That was my rock bottom,” Lindsey said when Stewart told her she might not return next year. “She’s the heart and soul of the school. If she didn’t return, I’m sure the position would go back to being vacant.”

In Minneapolis Public Schools, teachers with Tier 1 and 2 licenses primarily work in schools where at least 40% of students qualify for free and reduced price meals, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education. These are Title I schools, referring to the federal program that helps schools with high poverty rates.

Most Title I schools in the district enroll a majority of students of color. Particularly in the north half of the district, Title I schools are also more likely to have unfilled teaching positions in their schools, mirroring Hall’s experience with its unfilled physical education position. 

Difficulty staffing schools that qualify for Title I funding or that are a majority students of color is not a problem unique to Minneapolis.

Tier 1 and 2 license holders are hired to fill many long-vacant positions in Title I schools, but the schools experience an annual churn of employees when those teachers have to reapply each year. That job instability can lead many teachers with Tier 1 and 2 licenses to leave for jobs with more stability. Ultimately, students in schools like Hall face more instability in staffing than in schools where teachers can remain in their jobs year to year.

“It makes it hard to build a program,” Lindsey said of the policy of annually excessing Tier 1 license holders.

Stewart said she was allowed to re-apply for her position during the district’s internal hiring process this month, and she credits Lindsey’s advocacy for helping her get rehired. Lindsey says the district was able to work with the state licensing board to designate additional fields, including physical education, as “high need” fields. This designation allows the district to make exceptions to the requirement that internal applicants have a continuing license to participate in internal hiring.

Legislature puts up barriers

Minnesota has operated a tiered license system for teachers since 2018. The system was created to streamline the licensing process and to give people like Stewart, who do not have a bachelors or masters degree in education, a pathway to work as teachers.

There are four types of teaching licenses.  under the tiered licensure system. Teachers who complete a traditional post-secondary teaching degree are awarded a Tier 3 or 4 license, which lasts for three years and is renewable indefinitely. Tier 3 and 4 license holders can also earn tenure, which gives them the right to remain in their position year after year unless terminated for cause.

Originally, individuals with a bachelor’s degree in any field could obtain a Tier 2 license. A Tier 2 license lasts for two years and could be renewed three times. A Tier 2 license can be converted to a Tier 3 license after three years of successful teaching,

The Legislature changed the program last year and restricted who can obtain a Tier 2 license. Tier 2 licenses are now limited to teachers enrolled in a teacher preparation program, or who have a masters degree in the field in which they teach. There are some limited exceptions to these rules for specific fields like career and technical education.

The changes mean teachers like Stewart now lack a pathway to an indefinitely renewable license and tenure without spending the time and money to enroll in a teacher preparation program.

The fourth type of license is a Tier 1 license, which must be renewed annually. Under the new rules, Tier 1 licenses can only be renewed three times unless a district can demonstrate an extenuating circumstance.

For teachers like Stewart, this means that even if she teaches successfully for four years, she might not be able to continue teaching. Without enrolling in a teacher preparation program, Tier 1 license holders have no pathway out of annual license renewals, and no way to earn tenure.

In Minneapolis Public Schools, teachers with Tier 1 and 2 licenses were able to participate in the internal hiring process last school year, according to the district. But the district changed that this year. Teachers without a valid license for the next school year, which includes all Tier 1 and some Tier 2 license holders, cannot participate in the district’s internal hiring process this year. An exception was made for current Tier 1 and 2 license holders whose license is for a “high need field,” according to a statement from the district.

The change to district policy was one factor contributing to the stress Stewart felt.

“I honestly don’t know with Minneapolis because nothing is set in stone,” Stewart said. “You never know what’s going to happen. It’s just up in the air. It’s not a secure system.”

The district says teachers with Tier 1 and 2 licenses are excessed each spring, “in accordance with the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement” because their license type makes them ineligible to participate in the internal hiring process. Positions currently held by Tier 1 and 2 license holders can be filled during the internal hiring process by Tier 3 and 4 license holders who are already working for the district. These rules create job insecurity and uncertainty for teachers like Stewart.

An inspiring teacher’s story, and how the MN licensing system prevents diversity of teacher corps
Hall Elementary students learn how to swim at V3 Sports in Minneapolis as part of their physical education class. Photo courtesy of Rachel Stewart.

Tiered licensure was also supposed to diversify the teacher workforce in Minnesota to reflect the growing racial and ethnic diversity of Minnesota students. Almost 94% of Minnesota’s teachers are white, while about 40% of public school students in Minnesota are students of color or American Indian. While less than 5% of white teachers in Minnesota have a Tier 1 or 2 license, over 30% of Black teachers had a Tier 1 or 2 license in the 2022-23 school year, the most recent year of available data.

In Minneapolis Public Schools, 52% of Tier 1 and Tier 2 licensed teachers are teachers of color, and 17% of all teachers of color in the district hold a Tier 1 or 2 license. For white teachers, just 4% hold a Tier 1 or 2 license.

Research has shown the traditional teacher preparation system includes barriers for many people of color who want to work as teachers, including the cost of higher education, unpaid student teaching, and the time required to obtain the license.

At the same time teachers of color face barriers to becoming teachers, a significant body of research shows hiring educators of color, particularly Black teachers, improves academic outcomes for all students. For example, when Black students have just one Black teacher before third grade, they are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. Black teachers also reduce over-identification of Black students for special education services, improve attendance, and reduce suspensions and expulsions for Black students. Teachers of color also benefit white students both academically and socially.

The district has been working to diversify its teaching staff by implementing recommendations from a 2019 Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment. That assessment found that teachers of color face systemic barriers within the district to both hiring and retention.

Diversifying its staff, including its teachers, is part of the district’s strategic plan. The district and its teachers’ union agreed to nation-leading contract language to protect underrepresented teachers from excessing and layoffs in 2022. However, that contract language is not being implemented because of a lawsuit against the district that alleges the provision is discriminatory.

Stewart isn’t sure if she will return to Hall next year.

Although she has now been offered her job back, she’s not sure if she will return because of her experience with the hiring and licensing system. She began applying for other jobs outside of the district before she knew she could return to Hall.

“If someone else offers me a position and I feel like it puts me in a better financial place, I’m done because I can’t keep playing games with Minneapolis after all these years,” Stewart said. “The hard part is walking away from the students, but I know at some point I’m going to have to choose me.”