S.4 E.1: A Vocation in Education

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Crystal Polski '04 of the Minneapolis Public School Disctrict.
Posted on September 14th, 2020 by

Educator Crystal Polski ’04 on why she aspired to be a teacher, her new position aimed at fostering future educators of color for the Minneapolis Public Schools district, what she learned as a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching recipient in Finland, learning standards, and reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Season 4, Episode 1: “Asking Questions We Don’t Quite Know How to Ask”

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

To open or not to open? That is the question that hung over education systems across the United States all summer long and that continues to bedevil parents, educators, and at least some local and state leaders at the start of this pandemic school year. As if that fraught question didn’t pose enough of a challenge for public schools this fall, the murder of Mr. George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on May 25th has raised the urgent issue of how schools in that city and elsewhere can address systemic racism in their communities, curriculums and hiring.

Against this backdrop, I have been eager to speak with educator, Crystal Polski, Gustavus class of 2004. A secondary ed social studies teaching major at Gustavus, where she received the Paul Magnuson award for service and leadership, Crystal went on to earn a master of arts and economics and entrepreneurship and education from the University of Delaware, and a master of education in education policy and management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Along the way, she won a Fullbright Distinguished Award in teaching, which took her to Finland as a teacher researcher for the first half of 2014. She has also taught English in Japan, winning an award for her work there, co-taught history in a South African township and worked extensively with teachers at Chelsea High School outside Boston.

Crystal is not only a superb teacher and researcher. She is also at the forefront of creative thinking and action regarding curricula, teacher development, and diversity, equity and social justice in public schools. She brings all her experience and expertise to bear in her current position as a teacher on special assignment, or TOSA, for the Minneapolis Public Schools district. She works closely, especially at Henry High School in Minneapolis. It was a pleasure having her in class as a Gustavus student, and having followed her career since, it’s a special treat to have her on the podcast. Welcome, Crystal.

Crystal Polski:

Thank you. That was quite the intro. It made me blush a little bit. You can’t see it, but-

Greg Kaster:

Well, you deserve that intro. We’re so proud of you and all that you’ve done and continue to do, and it’s great to have you on the podcast.

Crystal Polski:

Well, thank you, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for coming. Why don’t we start with you and what brought you to Gustavus, where you grew up, what made you choose Gustavus, and also what made you choose education. I don’t know if you chose it or if it just sort of happened. Did you know already? Some students have a sense of what they want to major in. But just tell us a little bit about that part of your journey, if you would.

Crystal Polski:

Sure. So I grew up in Chaska, not too far from Gustavus, and my parents did not go the traditional route of attending college, and so I was kind of a first generation college student and trying to figure things out. I knew I wanted to stay in Minnesota, and I knew that I wanted to go someplace where I would feel a sense of community. I had the opportunity to visit Gustavus before my senior year. It was largely under construction at that time because it was not long after the tornado, and so I think the student union was all torn up. But the Gustie Greeter, whoever it was, I don’t know, they really sold it. I felt like I could see myself there.

Another big factor was definitely financial. As I was applying for schools, I was very conscious of financial aid, and Gustavus provided me with the largest financial package of any of the schools that I visited, and part of that was that they honored some of the … I received a Norelius Service Award scholarship and some other scholarships and grants that allowed me to get this private school experience at the cost of a large public university. So I still had to take out some loans, but I was able to fund my education that way.

I was interested in education prior to going to Gustavus. I had thought about medicine. My senior year in high school, I did a mentorship with a doctor and realized I really like kids. I do not like being around illness. So that shifted my path to rethink where I might go with those interests. My mother did … She provided an in-home daycare service, and so we had 10 kids at my house at all times growing up. I was used to navigating all of their different needs and helping her wherever I could. I also learned from that that I wanted to work with older students. I wanted to be able to talk about bigger issues that were happening in the world. I always loved my social studies classes, and so my first J term at Gustavus, I participated in the J term where you go and you observe in a classroom. I was able to go back and observe one of my favorite history teachers who has since passed on, Mr. [Bachman 00:05:39], and just loved the energy of the students, and really realized that that was probably the place where I was going to be. I remember being nervous about … I don’t know what the education department is like now, but it was fairly competitive while I was there.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, it still is.

Crystal Polski:

I think we had 50 students apply the fall that I applied to get in, or however that worked out, and only 25 got in. At the time, I remember thinking, oh, my gosh, I feel bad for those other people, but it did allow for us to have really small class sizes and really have the type of reflective conversations that have really shaped who I am as an educator in a way that I don’t know that I would have had that experience had I gone to a large university. I mean, we joked about how many journals we were … There was a journal for every class of reflections. We had a reflection journal of our reflection journals. It did really sort of shape my philosophy of being more of a constructivist teacher, and also of education as vocation, thinking about somebody like Children’s Defense founder, Marian Wright Edelman, who says that, “Service is the rent that you pay for living.”

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I love that quote. That’s a great quote.

Crystal Polski:

I also do. That wasn’t just in the education department. The idea of vocation was very prominent while I was at Gustavus and made me think a lot about the work that I was going to do in the world.

Greg Kaster:

That’s still the case. We still have that emphasis on vocation or calling, some might say. You’ve said some important things. I think one thing is, yeah, with the financial aid that Gustavus is able to offer, and we’ve gotten even better at that as fundraising has gotten better. I think you put it well, something like a private education at public school cost or something, which is … [inaudible 00:08:07] people look at the sticker price, but most students … And that’s true at really all schools. They’re not paying the sticker price. They might be paying half or less with all those scholarships. I like what you said too about how you felt you could see yourself there. I think just in general that’s important. I say that to students considering Gustavus. It doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you can see yourself there, you can feel like you belong. That’s been a little bit of a theme with some of the alums I’ve talked to for this podcast. We’re glad you came, obviously, to Gustavus, and you majored in education, great ed program then and now. Do you have memories of certain teachers or classes? Also, what does constructivist teaching mean?

Crystal Polski:

Sure. I checked out the education page the other day because I wanted to see which professors were still there, but one of my first classes, social foundations of education, was with professor Carolyn O’Grady.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah, Carolyn [crosstalk 00:09:16]

Crystal Polski:

She was the first person that introduced the idea of white privilege to me, and really wanting me to reflect on my identity and how that would be impactful in the classroom. It’s something that I continue to think about today. It’s not like you learn it and then you’ve got it. You’re constantly reexamining that privilege and how that plays out in the world. Also, Deb Pitton, she was the social studies advisor at the time and really gave us a lot of freedom to construct units and lessons as we were planning for student teaching. This idea of constructivism is rather than seeing yourself as the leader of everything in the classroom, that you’re trying to cocreate knowledge with students rather than being a sage on the stage, allowing opportunities for students to ask questions and interrogate ideas.

I think too about the history department and how that … I think one of my first history classes was with you, and this was the first time that history was presented to me in a way that we looked at primary sources and really tried to think about what is this telling us. What is it not telling us? Whose voices are here? Whose voices aren’t here? And to be sort of investigative about history and to be presented with history in that way. I think schools are starting to do a better job of that. The Stanford History Group has done a lot of work around-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, with Sam Wineburg.

Crystal Polski:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:11:14]

Crystal Polski:

I think, actually, you gave me one of Sam Wineburg’s books upon graduation.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, probably Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Crystal Polski:

Yes, yes [crosstalk 00:11:25] which I then passed on to somebody in Finland, because I was like-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, great.

Crystal Polski:

[crosstalk 00:11:31]. So that sort of approach and philosophy to education … Again, we were able to do … because of class sizes … I also want to just … I did get to have Amy Vizenor as a professor as well, who was very new in her career, but it was middle school teaching methods. I think we were all enamored by her because she was older than us enough to be married, and I think she was pregnant with her first child when we had her as a professor. But she was still connected enough to the classroom and close enough to our age that we just really … I just remember my classmates and I really connecting with her.

Greg Kaster:

That helps me to understand. The constructivist is … I mean, that definitely is what more and more we seek to do in the history field, not just stand. I love to lecture. I still do, but I try to do a lot less of that. I don’t think I was using this phrase, Crystal [inaudible 00:12:35] working out. I’m always telling the students we’re going to work out with the primary sources. We’re going to [crosstalk 00:12:40]

Crystal Polski:

Oh, I like that.

Greg Kaster:

To emphasize … Partly I did it because so many students were used to … at Gustavus and these other schools, doing the track and football. They could relate to that. Well, you’re going to do it in the classroom too. We’re going to work out here, but that the student isn’t just sitting passively, and the idea that you can cocreate knowledge together I think is terrific. So you graduated from Gustavus, and you indeed found yourself on the path toward a career in education. Let’s fast-forward to today. You’ve had some really interesting experiences. We can talk about the Finland experience in a bit, but let’s start with what you’re currently doing, which is your work as a TOSA, or, again, teacher on special assignment for Minneapolis Public Schools. Tell us a little bit about that involves and what you find both challenging and rewarding about it.

Crystal Polski:

So it’s a new position to me. I started part-time with the district last spring, amidst the pandemic. But the goal is really important, and Minneapolis Public Schools has 65% of students in 2018 identified as students of color, and only 17% of teachers identified as a person of color. There’s a significant … It’s incredible, and that’s not just something that’s happening at Minneapolis Public Schools. That’s something that’s happening nationwide. As I started to dig into that a little bit more, there used to be a thriving group of black educators prior to Brown versus Board of Education, and a lot of those jobs were lost when schools were moved to integrate. So that’s an interesting historical piece to have about it and something that I try to keep in my mind. Sometimes the past repeats itself. How do we make sure that this doesn’t happen again?

But part of the role, the goal of … The district did an equity analysis of their HR policies and looked at the ways that … how teachers of color felt supported or didn’t feel supported. Also, we’re trying to think creatively about ways to provide different types of opportunities for students, and developed this program where high school students, starting at Henry High School, are going to have the opportunity to take concurrent enrollment courses with Minneapolis College, formerly MCTC or Minnesota Technical and Community College, where they’re going to get college credit for taking courses and learning about the profession.

Within those courses … So there’s going to be an introduction to urban education, a multicultural perspectives course, an introduction to technology and special education. Part of the goal is that those courses, if a student chooses to major in education, that they would count towards that student’s … that they would count towards the major classes and not just electives [crosstalk 00:16:30]

Greg Kaster:

Hmm, okay.

Crystal Polski:

… more barriers for young people of color that are going on to higher education than there are for their white counterparts in terms of access to funding, loans. So trying to provide a different pathway and really trying to start at the high school level of targeting students that might be interested in that path and supporting them along the way. Outside of that, there’s a lot of building that we’re going to be doing this year. Part of my job will be communicating with lots of different stakeholders, students, families, people in the district, existing teachers of color to try to build a program that is going to both be sustainable and supportive.

Greg Kaster:

Is one of the challenges … I’m thinking here with all … You mentioned the stakeholders. I would imagine there are certainly areas of agreement, but also I would think areas of difference. Is that one of the challenges you face, I mean, how to navigate around, between all those different stakeholders and try to also bring them together?

Crystal Polski:

Sure. I mean, one of the challenges-

Male:

[crosstalk 00:18:02]

Crystal Polski:

One of the challenges is going to be economic. The district, like many school districts … This last year has definitely impacted tax revenue in a city like Minneapolis. So while it’s the right work to be doing, it’s not inexpensive work. Coalition building, consensus building, getting people to the table and providing lots of different perspectives, those things aren’t a linear path always. So the district has committed to supporting this work for at least three years, and part of my job, I think, will be to try to make it go much longer than that and figure out ways to make this embedded in the system.

Greg Kaster:

What you just said is so important, I think, because it seems like, well, you just talk to people. You figure things out. You work together. But, no, it does take time, and it takes money. It takes resources. One of the things I cannot stand is when I hear people say, well, this school doesn’t need more money or that school doesn’t need more money. They just need better teachers or more [crosstalk 00:19:19] no, resources matter, right? I mean, they matter a great deal. Are you the first or only TOSA?

Crystal Polski:

So it’s interesting. Last spring was a lot of talking to different people, and I found out … And this happens in education, and it happens in policy in general, that there was a thriving program that was a magnet program, and there were students that were grades 9 through 12 participating in this sort of pathway program at Edison High School, another high school in the Minneapolis Public School District, and it went away. There were just a few teachers supporting it, and so part of the idea behind my role is technically housed in HR, is a value statement by the district that we don’t want this program to go away. We want to find a way to support these students while they’re at Minneapolis and then reach back out to them and try to have them work back at Minneapolis, whether that’s as an education support professional, or if they do go on to teaching, or maybe they decide social work is their passion. But to bring students back into the schools.

Greg Kaster:

I think it’s a great idea. I mean, I hope to goodness it works, because that disparity you mentioned … I forget the exact statistic, but that must be one of the worst … Well, you can tell me. Is that one of the worst gaps in the country where there are so many white teachers? By the way, aren’t most of them men? Or, sorry, women. Is that right? Most of them are women.

Crystal Polski:

Most of them are women. I don’t know how that breaks down at the different grade levels though. It’s close to 17% … I would have to look back at what the national number is. But there are actually a little more teachers of color at Minneapolis Public Schools than in some of the other districts. But I think, for a lot of reasons, it’s been difficult to … Because schools are built, like many of the institutions in our country, on white supremacy, schools have not really been built to be supportive of black and brown students and of black and brown teachers.

Greg Kaster:

Right, that’s the key. That’s exactly … So you … I mean, go ahead, sorry.

Crystal Polski:

[crosstalk 00:22:02] start working there, and then it doesn’t feel like it’s a place for you.

Greg Kaster:

It’s sort of self-reinforcing. Well, back to what you said about you and [inaudible 00:22:12] that you don’t see yourself reflected there. So why would you want to go? Or you think, gee, to be a teacher, you have to be white and maybe female. So, basically, I mean, the idea is to create a kind of pipeline, hopefully, for people of color and even more men of color to come back into the Minneapolis Public Schools. Is that a fair-

Crystal Polski:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:22:40]

Crystal Polski:

There are things happening at the state level where there’s some grant funding that’s available, and so part of my role will be seeking some of that out and writing grants.

Greg Kaster:

I wondered about that, if some money raising, grant writing … It just sounds great. All the best with that. It’s exciting.

Crystal Polski:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

It sounds like the school district is committed, as you said. I mean, they’re really trying to make sure this isn’t just a one-off thing that disappears. Now you must be dealing with the question I alluded to in my introduction. I began with that, and that is the question of school reopening. I know this is a question not just for the United States, but let’s focus on the US here. What are your thoughts about that, to open or not to open? My wife and I do not have children, as you know. I have gone back and forth in my own head imagining myself as a parent and thinking about all the reasons I’d want my children to resume school, including so that their education isn’t interrupted. Then I think, at the same time, it just seems like it’s going to be so, so difficult to make it work. I realize some schools have already opened. But you’re thinking about that. I mean, I know you’ve thought about it. What are your views on that question, to open or not to open, if that’s even the right way to frame it?

Crystal Polski:

Yeah, it’s such a big question. You named some of the different people involved with that. There’s the families and the teachers and the students and all of the different layers. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t really glad that Minneapolis is starting with distance learning. I can’t really imagine going back to the classroom right now. In the past, my school might provide me with a box or two of Kleenexes and a thing of Clorox wipes, and then it was up to me to provide any sort of additional cleaning equipment that might be needed for my room, not that the engineers and custodians didn’t clean the rooms. But if a kid spilled something in the class or I had students that had allergies and needed I wipe down their desk before class began because of potential contamination …

So I’ve also worked in a lot of buildings where I didn’t have a window in my classroom and didn’t have great ventilation. Even if there was great ventilation, like opening the windows, it wasn’t a great option in the climates that I’ve worked in. Last fall I had 36 eighth graders in one of my classes with no outside window. Eighth graders, by the end of the day, have a bit of a funky smell to them. They’re very endearing. Granted, I know districts are trying a lot of different things, whether they’re doing distance or hybrid and smaller class sizes. I just don’t know that it’s safe to reopen right now [crosstalk 00:26:23]

Greg Kaster:

That’s [crosstalk 00:26:25] and that’s the main concern, being safe for the students, being safe for the teachers, the staff. That’s the main concern. So last spring did you do some teaching, some online teaching?

Crystal Polski:

I did [crosstalk 00:26:38]

Greg Kaster:

How did that go?

Crystal Polski:

… train wreck. I was trying my best, but at the end of the day, there were many days that ended in tears because it just felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I didn’t really know how to best meet their needs, especially students that I was struggling to get connected with, or families that … just trying to determine … I don’t care if you’re turning in your assignments. I just want to know that you’re okay, and trying to check in with certain kids. Over time, I think it got a little bit better. I think teachers have been scrambling this summer to learn, as we always do in the summer, learn as much as you can about how to make distance learning better, if you knew that was going to be your school’s option. I know teachers taking time to learn different apps or how to make the space collaborative.

I think one of the challenges for schools that do open and are hybrid … I see learning as such a social process. Separating kids and having them at their desks … I heard one … I don’t remember which news story I was listening to, but somebody commented and said, “You know, instead of going up and down the aisles now, you’re just going to stand in front of the class.” It was like, oh, no, this is everything that you don’t want to do as a teacher. Classroom management … Proximity to students is one of the biggest ways to deal with behavior sometimes. You get a little closer, and that sort of checks the student. So I that in some ways the online spaces are going to be able to be more collaborative. You’re going to be able to see kids’ faces. They’re going to be able to see each other’s faces. I’ve been in some different professional development sessions where you’re using breakout rooms in different ways.

So I think the school’s that’ll open … And I feel especially for the families that are sending kindergarteners, kids that don’t know anything about school, and that this might be their first exposure to it, and that it might … I’m not sure.

Greg Kaster:

I can’t imagine that. What about resources? So, I mean, are most students able to be online? I mean, they have the Wi-Fi connections or whatever. Or is Minneapolis Public Schools supplying? I mean, I hope teachers don’t have to go out and buy whatever routers or that sort of thing.

Crystal Polski:

I think they’re trying to do the best that they can. I think last spring it was hard to get devices to everyone. Of course … I mean, there was also a divide in Minneapolis between the north side and the south side in terms of economic resources. A number of south side families already had devices [inaudible 00:30:01] whereas some of the north side families did not, more than the south side. I think they’re trying to make sure that hotspots are available, ways to provide free internet. You see those stories online of kids being outside of a fast food restaurant to do their homework. It’s just like, that’s not a good option for school either.

There’s a colleague of mine who … Her kids are Minneapolis Public Schools, but she’s also got four kids and her and her husband, and they’re all working from home. So she asked for hotspots hoping that, when everybody is online, that the system doesn’t crash. Then for families that they’re not able to work from home and are having to go into work, that burden gets put on older siblings.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, the logistics, both the technology side of it but also just the human side of it, the family management side of it are sort of mind boggling. I really appreciate what you said though about being able to see the students’ faces. I was going to teach at Gustavus. I had signed up to do hybrid, so I’d be on campus some of the time and then on the screen somewhere in my office or here in Downtown Minneapolis, where we live.

Then I decided … Even before the recent uptick in infections in Minnesota, I decided, wait a second … And you know my teaching crystal even back then. This is not going to work for me. I’m going to be wearing a mask. The students will be masked. They won’t be sitting close together. I really won’t be able to march around the room or walk around the room the way I do. It’s just not going to work. That really is what … More even than my concern about my own health and safety and the students’ health and safety, my colleagues, but that really persuaded me as I thought about it. No, I’m going to go all online here. I’d rather be able to see them. Having had the first two classes yesterday, I’m glad I did. It’s just such a difference to be able to see their faces and expressions, even though we’re not together as we all would like to be. So I appreciate you saying that. I’m sure it will go better for you. It won’t be a train wreck.

Crystal Polski:

Yeah [crosstalk 00:32:32]

Greg Kaster:

Are you doing teaching as part of the TOSA? Do you actually do teaching or not?

Crystal Polski:

I’ve been working with a teacher and hopefully getting to coteach some lessons. I think that was one of the hardest … I’m really excited for this role, but it’s also sad that I won’t have my own classes, because that’s part of what makes teaching joyful, are the students. But I will be getting to participate in some of the education pathway classes.

Greg Kaster:

So is Minneapolis … It’s not all online for the entire fall, or is it? Has that been determined yet?

Crystal Polski:

It’s undetermined. We’re going to be watching the numbers. The operations people worked hard over the summer and went through buildings and tried to think about spaces. I think the logistics of trying to do a hybrid and keeping the schools clean given the resources that they have was a factor in deciding not to do a hybrid model right now.

Greg Kaster:

Well, I mean, to say it’s a challenging time for education is certainly an understatement. While we’re on this, you wrote something which I think is so true, and I’ll just quote it. You say, “Schools can’t return to normal.” There’s all this talk about we just want to get back to normal, schools and all of us. “Schools can’t return to normal because normal was not serving all children, families or teachers.” I guess, I wonder. I mean, it’s still early, even though we’re all tired of the pandemic and its disruptions. But in a way it’s still early. Do you have a sense already of how the pandemic might change things in positive ways for education at least here in Minnesota or Minneapolis?

Crystal Polski:

Yeah, and I have to credit Dr. Bettina Love for the schools can’t return to normal piece, because she wrote an article about that in Ed Week. But it highlighted the fact that some of the things that teachers have been fighting for, smaller class sizes, students being able to take devices home, rethinking about where does school take place … Does it need to take place in a physical building? Those are some of the things that I think there is some potential for growth and for us to be creative and innovative in thinking about the future of schools and what schools look like. I can’t say that … That also is very scary to me, because we’ve been operating in … I grew up in a system where you went to school from these hours to these hours. But I do think there’s a lot of potential. Things like students aren’t going to have to fill out certain forms to get access to the breakfast and lunch boxes that the district is distributing.

Greg Kaster:

That’s good.

Crystal Polski:

Yeah, it’s great, because some people may not fill out the forms. Then you’ve got hungry children, and kids can’t learn if they’re hungry, so things like that. If we could switch to … Finland just provides meals for their kids. They just make the assumption that, if you’re going to be in our care, part of being in our care is that we’re going to provide you with a lunch every day. It doesn’t matter if your family makes a million dollars or is living under the poverty line. You’re all going to get food.

Greg Kaster:

You don’t need to fill out forms or anything like that. It’s just a given.

Crystal Polski:

So I think some of those things are really promising.

Greg Kaster:

That’s hopeful. It’d be interesting to see, including with anti-racism work that’s come out and protests come out of Mr. Floyd’s murder. But it will be interesting to see what the long … well, what the short-term but also especially the long-term effects are of the pandemic. As historians we know they may not all be negative, right? It’s possible that some positive changes will come. You mentioned Finland, and that’s kind of where I wanted to go next. That just sounded like such an amazing experience. I don’t know if you were emailing me or snail mailing me [inaudible 00:37:15] about your experience. It just sounded fantastic. Tell us a little bit about that, both what you did in Finland as a Fullbright teacher, researcher, but also what you learned and whether … Certainly, the lunch piece sounds applicable. We should adopt that in this country, but whether there are any lessons we Americans might benefit from by looking at the Finnish model.

Crystal Polski:

Sure. I have to just do a quick plug for the Fullbright Distinguished Teacher [crosstalk 00:37:46]

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s good.

Crystal Polski:

… because it was such an invaluable experience and opened up a lot of doors for me, both professionally and personally. Different countries participate every year. I chose Finland because, at the time, I was working for a very high-performing district, and I still found that my students were fairly passive. Dr. Michael [inaudible 00:38:18], who used to work at the University of Minnesota, had this phrase about students not just being consumers of knowledge, but learning how to be producers of knowledge. So I wanted to see, in a high-performing country, what was happening at the high school level in Finland. Most of the things written about Finland are written about the kindergarten to ninth grade.

So I went there. The one place that there is an exit exam in Finland is high school. So what ends up happening in a lot of social studies and history classrooms is students aren’t reading primary sources. They’re reading from textbooks, and they’re listening to lectures. So I was a little disappointed to find that out.

Greg Kaster:

I’m surprised by that. Just thinking about Finland and progressive and it would be the opposite, but that’s interesting. Go ahead.

Crystal Polski:

I think part of that was because the high schools that I worked with were mostly … There’s two different … There’s three pathways in high school for students, and one of those pathways is you are going to go to university. Those were the types of high schools that I visited. However, 50% of students go to a vocational high school, and vocational high school is not seen as less than. So those schools … I think, allowing for that student choice and teaching kids in an area that they are interested in was really different from the way that we operate here in the United States. It made sure that, if you started down one path and you got into the university, prep school and you’re like, I don’t really actually enjoy this, I want to learn about engineering, then you can switch paths and go to the other type of high school, and there’s not … You’re not going to have to pay more because you’re going to be in the system longer.

Greg Kaster:

That’s interesting. So they facilitate those changes. Also, it’s interesting to me. I mean, I don’t think it’s the case in this country. When we say vo-tech, it even has pejorative connotations, less than. So that’s interesting, 50%. So, I’m sorry, go ahead. Keep going.

Crystal Polski:

We’re trying to … I think, in the United States, we’re reshaping it as career and technical education programs. But I think allowing students to have an expanded idea of what school can look like, that it doesn’t just have to be you’re going into a university. That’s a really powerful thing. I think, overall, schools in Finland are not expected to solve all of the social problems in the world.

Greg Kaster:

You’re anticipating what I wanted to ask. Go ahead, please.

Crystal Polski:

Because when you think about something like … I know No Child Left Behind has been replaced by other legislation. But if you want to go to a place where no child is left behind, it’s Finland. Children are given a baby box from the time … And everybody gets that baby box.

Greg Kaster:

What’s a baby box?

Crystal Polski:

Oh, it’s this wonderful box full of things like a snowsuit and onesies and lots of different items that you would need probably in the first year of life. It also can serve as a crib.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, wow.

Crystal Polski:

It’s got an open … It’s not like you’re putting the baby in a closed box. They’ve been doing it since after World War II. They recognized that, unless people have the same start in life, that they wouldn’t be able to have strong outcomes, which is so different. Kids come in to school at such different starting points because we don’t provide them with high-quality childcare. There aren’t great options for working mothers, and so all of those types of things … When you take care of people outside of school, it’s so much easier for children to come to school ready to learn.

Greg Kaster:

I mean, that’s a superb point and so important, and yet so hard, I think, to get people in this country, including taxpayers, but also some leaders, to understand. You’re right. It’s even true at the college level. We’re expected to solve all of these. It’s kind of like the police. They’re arguing about police aren’t trained to do mental health [inaudible 00:43:27]. I mean, the same with schools. We’re not really supposed to be social service organizations, but we are, and you’ve got students who are hungry.

I may have told you way back when that my cousin now retired, she taught [inaudible 00:43:40] for a long time [inaudible 00:43:41] career outside of Chicago, in Elgin, Illinois. I remember her telling me about one of her students who was basically living out of a car with his mom. How in the hell can you learn under those circumstances? So that sounds like something positive to come out of Finland. I’m surprised about the students aren’t … It doesn’t sound like it’s a constructivist approach to teaching in Finland.

Crystal Polski:

[crosstalk 00:44:10] wanted it to be.

Greg Kaster:

The teachers want it to be.

Crystal Polski:

[crosstalk 00:44:15] yeah, and the education programs encourage teachers to do that. I think the realities of, like I said, some of those exit exams to prepare for university and shorter amounts of time with history just … Those are constraints that impacted the way teaching happened.

Greg Kaster:

What about … I think you mentioned … Tell me if I’ve got this right. You mentioned that the teachers write the textbooks. Is that what you said?

Crystal Polski:

Yeah. So teachers … That was another thing that I thought was really amazing.

Greg Kaster:

That sounds incredible. Go ahead.

Crystal Polski:

Some of the math teachers that I befriended were showing this textbook to me. They were talking about how they wrote it. I was like, “Excuse me?” Rather than have … And then textbooks became consumables for students, so students could highlight and write in them. There weren’t the same type of giant publishers and test taking machines that pump out all of these materials.

Greg Kaster:

Right, that we have in this country and maybe other countries. That’s interesting. Because it’s an industry, right? We have the higher ed publishing industry, the testing industry. What about … Do they have standards there, national standards that teachers have to teach to or not?

Crystal Polski:

Yes, they do have national standards, but they’re not … There’s just a lot more trust in teachers. They do regulate more who can become a teacher, which there are pros and cons to that I think. Oh, the other thing that I thought was pretty … When we’re thinking about tests and things like that … So they have these national exams, and students sit for the exams. They decide which topics that they’re going to take as their exit exams. I think they pick about five topics. Then the teachers grade those exams. They’re essay exams. There’s enough trust that they give those tests to the teachers, and then they’re sent off somewhere to do a spot check. But there’s not the type of trust in the United States.

Greg Kaster:

No, no.

Crystal Polski:

When I had to give standardized tests, I had to lock my room. If there was any sort of disturbance in the room, I needed to record that on a log of what time it occurred and all of these things.

Greg Kaster:

Also, it sounds like they’re not using … They’re standards, but they’re not using standardized … It’s all essay. That’s not the case [crosstalk 00:47:17]

Crystal Polski:

… it is across Finland. So let’s say for the spring of 2020, students took the history exam. That history exam was the same history exam across the country, but it wasn’t a bubble test.

Greg Kaster:

Like multiple choice or fill … This is another question I wanted to ask you about. Again, I know you’ve thought about this as an educator. But what about the standards movement and the emphasis on standards in this country, your thoughts about that both at the national level and the state level? I mean, speaking for myself, I can’t imagine having to teach to a test. Maybe that’s being unfair. Maybe it’s not that … It’s more complicated or more hopeful then that sounds [crosstalk 00:48:12]. But what are your thoughts about standards?

Crystal Polski:

So [crosstalk 00:48:20] against standards. I’ve been thinking … So a couple of things. First, I’ve been thinking a lot about the standards in terms of … Again, after reading We Want to Do More Than Survive:-

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:48:34]

Crystal Polski:

… Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, by Dr. Bettina Love, I’ve been thinking about standards in terms of how are standards showing, particularly in my subject area of social studies, the joy and contributions of black and indigenous and people of color? Because when I think about standards, a lot of them are addressing the trauma that’s happened to those people in our country, but isn’t … It’s something like students will analyze the economic impact of the slave trade or something like that. That doesn’t really highlight all of the contributions that black people have made in this country.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a superb point. I mean, right.

Crystal Polski:

Again, not my own, from this book which [crosstalk 00:49:33] really great. But I think, in some ways, standards do create a level of making sure … It produces a level of high expectations so that you don’t have a school in Minnesota … or, I mean, since they’re at the state level, so that you don’t have a town in Minnesota where they’re never exposed to certain information because teachers decided that they didn’t want to teach that.

Greg Kaster:

So that’s a plus.

Crystal Polski:

At the same time, social studies in Minnesota is not tested, per se. Reading is tested, writing is tested, and so there may be content on there that is … There might be a story about Jackie Robinson, and then there’s questions. But social studies is not tested in Minnesota.

Greg Kaster:

Which seems odd to me.

Crystal Polski:

Well [crosstalk 00:50:41] it was purposeful because … And I would have to look back on what the law actually is for Minnesota, but there is a law in place to prevent that from happening because of who do you include in that test and who do you exclude. So that’s an interesting … But other states-

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:51:07]

Crystal Polski:

… do test history. Overall, standards have the power to make sure that there’s a base level of knowledge that everyone’s being exposed to. But I think they could be broader, and in some ways a lot of people might balk at this. But I think the Common Core standards are not terrible for English and writing and the humanities, because they’re standards … Students are able to identify the main argument of the author, or students can understand the purpose of a text.

Greg Kaster:

Sure, which is what we try to teach in history class.

Crystal Polski:

[crosstalk 00:51:59] more skills based than you have to memorize these dates and these individuals.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I agree. That Common Core I can get behind. I know we could do a whole conversation [crosstalk 00:52:19] we’re just scratching the surface.

Crystal Polski:

[crosstalk 00:52:21]

Greg Kaster:

Why don’t we, by way of conclusion here … Tell us a little bit … Imagine you’re speaking to a current group of first years or sophomores at Gustavus, second years who are thinking of a career in teaching, advice for them.

Crystal Polski:

I mean, I would say that teaching is both rewarding and challenging. But every day is different, which I think makes it exciting. I see manage as a lifelong learner, partially from my experience at Gustavus. I think teaching allows you to constantly be learning. I would also say to be patient with yourself. Somebody told me in my first year that teaching is a marathon; it’s not a sprint.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s so true.

Crystal Polski:

[crosstalk 00:53:16] perfect the first day. Surround yourself with people that also love teaching and education, because like any profession, they’re the naysayers. That will wear you down, so find ways to cultivate joy in the work that you do.

Greg Kaster:

Excellent advice, and I’ve learned all of that the hard way. Most of us at Gustavus, we never took an education course. I mean, I never took an education course. We study our discipline, get a PhD in it. This is probably true of most college university teachers outside the ed programs. Then we wind up in the classroom. You sort of learn by the seat of your pants, which is in some ways good and in some ways not so good. But that’s excellent advice. I agree with you. It’s not a sprint, and I think your point about patience too and finding people who help you cultivate joy in your work, which you certainly have done. Congratulations on all that you’ve done thus far, and best of luck with the TOSA work. We’ll have to check back in with you at some point about that. Stay well. It’s great [crosstalk 00:54:28]

Crystal Polski:

Thank you again for having me on.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure, Crystal. Take good care.

Crystal Polski:

You too.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks. Bye, bye.

Crystal Polski:

Bye, bye.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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