Lydia Lee: a teacher who wants to oversee the system

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October 25, 2004 // UPDATED 4:28 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Bob Gilbert
Bob Gilbert

Middle-school math teacher and mentor believes knowing the details can lead to effective oversight

When it comes to campaigning, Minneapolis School Board candidate Lydia Lee admits she is out of her element. The 56-year-old East Calhoun resident is more at ease talking one-on-one to parents than in front of a group making a speech.

"I am not a politician," Lee said. "I like people, but I am not about selling myself. People who support me do so because they know what I can do, but it's not something that comes across in big gatherings."

However, Lee may win in spite of herself.

She won a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) School Board endorsement last spring on the first ballot with 70 percent of the vote, and finished first among 16 candidates in the Sept. 14 primary.

If elected, Lee would be the first Asian American elected to the Board.

What Lee brings is an insider's understanding about what actually happens inside Minneapolis classrooms. She retired from the district in June after 15 years spent mostly teaching middle-school math, although she ended her career as a district mentor to more than 20 first-year teachers.

That job took Lee to the front lines of educating Minneapolis kids. One of her biggest challenges was coaching young teachers how to keep order in the classroom and discipline unruly students.

From her office at district headquarters, Lee said she came to understand school district politics -- who talked to whom, how decisions were made and who made them.

"A lot of School Board members spend no time in the schools," Lee said. "You cannot make good decisions if you do not understand what is going on in the schools. If there is a policy about safety, you need to know what's going on in the schools to address that.

"The Board relies on the advice of individuals who work in operations," she said. "While many of them are nice people, I don't trust all of them to give sound advice."

As an example, she cited a middle-school situation last year wherein five teachers were assigned to a 7th-/8th-grade program where only four were needed. The even number was important because teachers can be paired to foster consistency and relationship-building over two years. Five teachers meant each grade used an extra half classroom and threw off the pairings.

"The person who made the assignment did not know how instruction works in a middle school," Lee said. "It destroyed the teaming aspect. It was a miserable year for that school. They got through it, but the following year, they insisted that it not happen again -- and it didn't."

She added, "The School Board doesn't deal with the nitty-gritty, and unless they had the background to see that in the budget, they would not know that it was harmful to the instruction of those students."

As a former teacher, Lee might be expected to have an interesting view of this summer's teacher realignment controversy; several teachers were reassigned to different schools and often-unfamiliar subject areas to preserve overall seniority.

She cited an extreme example wherein a teacher was assigned to a Spanish Immersion school -- but the teacher didn't speak Spanish.

"The realignment piece needed to be done with a conscience," she said. "It's not just what is on paper, it is what's best for kids. It's too late this year, but next year it will be different."

She said that in the past, the teachers' union was diligent about informing teachers with licenses in more than one subject that they could be forced into an area they hadn't taught. Last year, she said, that wasn't done.

Lee called on teachers to withdraw their licenses if they don't feel qualified to teach a subject -- as many teachers have done since this year's realignments.

Regarding school closings, Lee blamed the Board for dumping the issue on the community. She believes schools need to be closed but believes the Board should have had guidelines in place years ago to deal with the possibility.

Born in New York City's Chinatown, Lee moved to Minnesota when she was 8, when her father got a job offer from 3M. She graduated from White Bear Lake High School and in the '60s, attended the University of California-Berkeley, then a hotbed of political radicalism.

For someone who lived a self-described sheltered life, she said her time in California was a shock. She transferred back to the University of Minnesota, where she earned a degree in education. She taught in Honk Kong for two years and lived in the Philippines with her first husband before moving back to Minneapolis and working for the district.

She met her current husband, Michael O'Donnell, at Anderson Open School in 1982. O'Donnell retired last year after over 30 years as Minneapolis teacher. She has one child, a son, now 36 years old.

Based on her teaching experience, Lee has spent a lot of time thinking about the new focus on standardized tests and how they affect middle-school students.

"Their brains are changing, their bodies are changing and so is their chemical make-up. Kids need a lot of guidance at that age," Lee said.

"It is important to incorporate into the student's day opportunities for self-examination, where they can write and talk and process who they are and the changes going on in their lives," she said. "That piece is often missing in our schools because we are so hung up with reading and math because that is what the tests are all about."

While every teacher has a job description and every school has an improvement plan, Lee said a lot of teachers are doing their own thing and a lot of principals do not know what is going on in their classrooms. She feels that's where the schools need to be better. To accomplish that, she thinks there needs to be an enforceable accountability system for all district employees.

Although her years in the district are a selling point, Lee acknowledges that she has no experience overseeing large budgets such as that of the Minneapolis Public Schools.

As far as being a supervisor goes, Lee said she would do her job by utilizing something akin to the Socratic method.

"By knowing important details, I know what questions to ask," Lee said, "and, through their answers, I can clarify positions and define the vision of the school district."