Maybe you’ve read about hero teachers like Marjory Stoneman Douglas geography instructor Scott Beigel, who died shielding his students during the Parkland school shooting. Or Mattoon, Illinois, math teacher Angela McQueen, who tackled a gunman in her school cafeteria last year and managed to keep him from taking a single life.
Here’s one more whose name you ought to know: Randy Hansen, who in February became the fifth — yes, fifth — teacher this year in one kindergarten classroom at Longfellow Elementary School in Kansas City.
The feats of this first-year teacher? He shielded 13 kids from total chaos, and tackled the deficits that came from having five teachers in the space of six months in a school that already ranks at the back of the pack, behind 99 percent of other public schools in the state.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like any reason to throw the 54-year-old Navy veteran a parade. But as a weekly Lead to Read KC volunteer in his classroom, I saw his students go from spinning like little human cyclones right after he arrived, to asking permission by spring, and finally settling in just as the year is ending. Kindergarteners are just getting used to being in school, and to have the added challenge of getting used to five different adults in that first year is a ridiculously tall order.
I was there to read to kids, not work on a story, but what he pulled off in focusing them was the kind of hidden, highly aerobic achievement we’re wrong to take for granted, even if it is nearly impossible to measure.
All kids that age are a workout, but not all teachers have Hansen’s patience or steadiness. The original teacher in his classroom left for another job, and another after a death in the family. The students in the district as a whole are themselves highly transient, often because a parent has lost a job and the family’s been evicted.
And amid all the coming and going, “it’s taken a long time for them to get used to me,” Hansen said in an interview on a bench in front of the school one recent morning, “because they think I’m going to leave, too.” By the time he took over, some of the kids who should have been tested for extra help hadn’t gotten it, and “they were so behind, I’m playing catch-up,” initially on even such basics as how to form a line.
Most are so clever, Hansen said, that “if we had one-on-one, they could come up to speed pretty quick.” But underfunded as Kansas City public schools are, you don’t even have to ask if that’s happening, do you?
At Longfellow, just north of Hyde Park, which was founded in the 1890s and “renovated” 60 years ago, according to the school website, they need more teachers and more support, not to mention more supplies as simple as paper. Naturally, it’s teachers — and Missouri ranked 40th in the country in teacher pay last year — who tend to spring for it.
There’s an emotional cost to this kind of front-line duty, too. A new University of Missouri study found that 93 percent of all K-12 teachers feel “highly stressed.” At Longfellow, “everybody is so tired” that there wasn’t as much collegial sharing as Hansen had hoped. “You can see it at the end of the day” in a school where kids also tend to have a lot going on at home.
Fewer than half of his students had a parent who showed up for parent-teacher conferences this semester, he said, and none of those who were able to come complained about all the churn in the classroom.
At least Missouri lawmakers did fully fund K-12 education for next year, for only the second time ever. But with its enrollment going down, Longfellow is losing two teachers next year. One is retiring, and as the last to arrive, Hansen wasn’t asked back. Instead, he’ll be teaching third grade at a rural school in Lexington, Missouri.
“I’m glad I had the opportunity,’’ said Hansen, who would have stayed. But what a loss for Kansas City, and for some of the students who need a teacher like him most.