Does Our Team Need Another Coach?

Imagine a baseball team that is having trouble getting on base. Although they have a great deal of spirit, skills, and determination to win, they have a serious problem: their bats are tiny and half the size of a regular baseball bat! The team is losing patience and confidence in themselves, not only because they get very few hits, but because the team’s owner keeps telling them they are just not swinging properly. This leaves them feeling like they are not good at their craft and no one appreciates their efforts and desire to win for the team.

In this scenario, what would you do as a team owner? Get better, regular-sized bats for the players, right? That is what the players want, and what the fans have been demanding for them.

But what if I told you the owners, instead of investing in the equipment the players need to be successful, brought in two new coaches? Coaches whose job it would be to instruct the players on how to hit with the tiny bats.

Although this scenario may seem laughable, it is how our educators in Saint Paul Public Schools feel right now. Over the last 20 years they have been doing more and more with less as school funding decreases year after year. They’ve been doing this while students’ needs have increased at the same time. They are also receiving the message that the predictable racial disparities in our students’ outcomes rest solely on their shoulders, and that they are to blame for lack of improvement in test scores. Yet when parents and community members walk into classrooms and watch what is happening, they are astounded by what they see—educators building strong connections with students, and students learning new and exciting things, despite the absence of aides and assistants in classes that are too large, lack of interpreters, minimal janitors to clean the rooms, no full time nurse despite high medical needs, no librarian, over-worked special education teachers and English Learner teachers….the list goes on. When people spend serious time in our classrooms, they are duly impressed by what we accomplish with so few resources.

Our educators hold out hope that when new funding comes our way (via more state funds and/or through referendum, for example), the district will assign resources to address the needs described above. They hope as a team to get more right-size “bats.” Our educators want to win. They are tired of watching students fall between the cracks. Saint Paul educators work tirelessly to win for our students and simply want the tools they need to succeed.

But instead of “bats,” our district’s plan is to provide more coaches: $7 million worth of coaches.

Some of our schools most in need of support next year, if this district’s plan goes forward, will receive a full time “Professional Development Lead” for every 600-800 students. These PD Leads are to be the contact between district and the building, and fulfill the training needs of the building.  They will not help students with medical needs. They will not interpret for families. They will not work directly with students. They will be a coach for adults. A trainer.

Don’t get me wrong: Our educators value training. Our educators want to improve their craft. We know this because every year hundreds of educators take classes at our union, district, and local colleges. But when dollars are so tight, it makes no sense to us to invest in another quasi-administrator who will rarely, if ever, work with students. Just as a ball player can’t focus on coaching when they are frustrated about not having the right physical tools available, our educators will not get the full value of training if they are sitting in schools with over-crowded classrooms and inadequate student support staff.

We have yet to find a member of SPFE who thinks this is a good idea. We have spoken to no principal who likes this proposal. That’s because we know that ultimately, when you have a student in your classroom who is frustrated and needs help, and you can’t attend to her needs because so many other students demand your attention, what both educator and student need is someone who can provide immediate individual attention to that child so she has a chance to calm down and focus on her school work. This type of assistance is currently not consistently available. And after investing $7 million in this plan, educators will still be on their own. And they know they will be blamed when that student acts out or fails in her coursework.

But they will have another coach.

Think of how many counselors or nurses or social workers or classroom assistants $7 million could secure. Think of the impact we could have with these funds if they went to people who directly worked with our students and who would know them by name. Instead, we will be spending it on adults. We just aren’t sure how we’re going to win any games with that strategy.