Shadow and light

Observations of a rookie Southwest elementary school teacher

Editor’s note: This is the first story in an occasional series shadowing Ralph Sievert, a first-year teacher at Armatage Montessori School. Sievert, 23, is among the youngest teachers working for Minneapolis Public Schools.

On a recent September afternoon, Ralph Sievert performed a science experiment for his 24 students who crowded around him on a blue-cushioned platform in room 116 at the Armatage Montessori School.

When he placed a jar over a set of candles in the middle of a plate, the flame went out. Nearby, a hot plate heated another plate that contained water and a bottle filled with water with a balloon stretched over the top.

Steam blew up the balloon, revealing a “Happy Birthday” message. The students, a mix of 3rd and 4th graders, leaned forward and oohed and awed at the experiment.

Considering his captive audience, one would think the 23-year-old known simply as “Ralph” to the children, is a seasoned pro – not a rookie in his first year of teaching.

Sievert is jumpstarting his career in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), where young teachers are a rarity because of seniority rules. He’s able to teach in MPS because he’s pursuing certification in the hands-on, self-directed Montessori method.

The average age of teachers in MPS is about 45, according to data collected by Dan Loewenson, Interim Executive Director of human resources. This year, 94 new teachers have been hired for MPS schools. Some teachers laid off at the end of last year due to budget cuts are still being called back. So far, 103 teachers have had their jobs reinstated, and 110 teachers remain on layoff.

Sievert was attracted to Montessori after being exposed to the method as a substitute teacher.

“It seemed like an interesting, different approach, and it’s very child-centered,” he said. “When Joan [Franks, principal of Armatage,] approached me to do it, I didn’t even have to think about it. It was an opportunity to be a Minneapolis Public Schools teacher and especially good for an extremely young teacher like me to get training and be a part of something unique.”

Teaching runs in his family. His mom, Pam Sievert, is a teacher of 11 years at Armatage in the community school program.

She recalled the trials of being a first-year teacher.

“It is just overwhelming to be a first-year teacher,” she said. “You have to learn the curriculum, develop your personal style and philosophy for delivering that curriculum to the children, design a model for classroom management that works for you, and communicate all these pieces to the parents.”

She said it takes time to find balance.

“These are the frustrations of every teacher, but a huge adjustment for a young idealistic teacher who wants everything to be perfect,” she said. “It takes a long period of time to learn to juggle the expectations against the need to sleep and have a personal life.”

Ralph Sievert said having a class of his own is exciting and scary.

“If a kid asks about something, it’s no longer, ‘OK, how would so-and-so do this?,’” he said. “Now, it’s, ‘how would I do it?’”

Sievert told his students these first few weeks of his teaching career will stick with him forever.

“I told the kids on the first day of class that it’s exciting for me because you always remember your very first class. I told them I would remember them even when I’m an old man in a rocking chair,” he said. “I know that sounds cheesy, but they thought it was funny because I did an impression of an old man.”

Inside room 116

During the school week, Ralph arrives at Armatage at 6:30 a.m. and never leaves before 4 p.m. He still has plenty of work to do when he gets home, including lessons to plan and papers to grade.

“I’m exhausted,” he said, while trying to quickly eat his lunch, a banana. “It’ll be nice in a few years when I have a routine.”

Inside the classroom, a chalkboard contains the day’s schedule and assignments. Posters and banners are mounted at eye-level. Children’s goals for the year are written in clouds on a bulletin board, reading, “Reach for the sky!”

Children have assigned seats for now at miniature tables and chairs, plastic drawers for storing pencils, erasers and crayons. Individual boxes contain their personal notebooks, agenda, folder and workbooks. Backpacks and coats hang from hooks on the back wall.

A poster lists student jobs penned in perfectly formed cursive letters, including lunch counter, attendance clerk, secretary, messenger, gardener, line leader and class historian.

Vases of chrysanthemums appear here and there, matching the yellow and red classroom and palm plants (which the gardener is in charge of watering). Shelves are stocked with wooden learning tools that resemble salt-and-pepper shakers, along with strings of beads, abacuses, maps and other essentials of the Montessori method.

Pursuing Montessori

Sievert is pursuing Montessori certification at the College of St. Catherine along with another teacher down the hall, Christian Houdek. They attended daily classes over the summer and are now enrolled in weekly sessions. It’ll probably take another two years to complete. Even though it’s expensive at $10,000, they say it’s worth it to teach in MPS. There are 48 Montessori classrooms in MPS.

But translating theoretical concepts to the classroom pose many challenges since he must meet the real-world requirements of the federally mandated No Child Left Behind and district curriculum.

There’s suddenly so much you have to think about to make it run smoothly, like picture day or which students get pulled out for gifted-and-talented. You have to have a natural ability to go with the flow.”

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].