Ralph Doty: Jensens call an end to 70 years in teaching

A colleague at East High School calls them "two of the best" teachers in the Duluth schools. Between them, Ken and Sheryl Jensen have taught in the Duluth public schools for 70 years. But at the end of next school year the husband and wife team w...

A colleague at East High School calls them "two of the best" teachers in the Duluth schools. Between them, Ken and Sheryl Jensen have taught in the Duluth public schools for 70 years. But at the end of next school year the husband and wife team will hang up their chalk and erasers and take an early retirement.

What are their thoughts, now that they've decided to wrap up their teaching careers soon? How has education changed since their first years as teachers? Last week, I had separate in-depth conversations with both of them. Some of their comments might surprise you. Today, my interview with Sheryl. Next week, Ken's comments.

Sheryl Jensen, 55, is leaving her job as an English teacher because she wants to pursue two avocations she embraced while also teaching full time -- directing community theater productions (her most recent play was "Peter Pan" at the Duluth Playhouse), and devoting more time as editor of the full-color, free magazine, The Woman Today.

Also, she's a little weary. "I'm tired of grading papers every weekend. That's what has burned me up as an English teacher more than anything else," she told me. It's a rare weekend or evening, she said, when she's not grading composition papers for up to 150 students. Her typical work week extends well beyond 40 hours.

Some changes in the teaching profession have made her job less desirable than it was only a few years ago.


Jensen has a love-hate relationship with educational technology. "On the one hand," she says, "the Internet is an incredible tool for research. As a student I trudged off to the library in all kinds of weather to do my research for classes. Now, I can find what I need on the computer, sometimes in less than a minute's time."

The downside of easily accessible information is rampant student plagiarism -- word-for-word copying of someone else's work without attribution. "Teachers," said Jensen, "must judge whether a student's work was improperly lifted from another document. The upside of technology is that it can assist the teacher to find cheaters. A Web site searches a vast number of data bases that students may have used, and if they've plagiarized, it pops up on our screen."

She cites other challenges working with technology: "With spell check and grammar check on our computers, are people really going to need to know how to spell? Are they going to have to know correct subject-verb agreement if the computer will do it for them?"

Jensen says technology has impacted teachers' relationships with students and parents. When she began her teaching career, the typical school had one phone for the entire teaching staff. Today, every classroom has a phone with voice mail and each teacher is easily reached through e-mails. "The computers on our desks take up so much time because there are e-mails from parents every day, and correspondence from students who, for example, are absent and write about missed assignments," she said.

Students' grades also consume too much of teachers' time that could be devoted to planning lessons, grading papers and preparing tests. All grades for all tests must be posted on a computer. When grades aren't instantly posted on the Internet, parents -- who are allowed to tap into the grading software -- write to teachers, wanting to know what happened. "How much time do you take when the typical teacher has 150 students and some parents demand instant answers to their inquiries?" she asks.

With no clerical assistance, Jensen devotes five to 10 hours to handling more than 100 e-mail and voice messages every week.

The 2003 Minnesota Teacher of the Year finalist is not a fan of middle schools -- typically grades 5 through 8: "I think it changed the whole environment of the high school. When I taught at Ordean, where I taught ninth graders, I saw their maturity as the 'elders' of the school. I saw their eagerness to then go on to high school and their enthusiasm for three years of high school when they got there. In the high school of grades 10 through 12, there was a common culture ... formed by our communal high school time. Now, high school is not the same environment."

Finally, Jensen worries about her profession's future. "I think students hear that teaching is not necessarily to be respected. Ken and I visited China a few years ago, and we had a chance to talk to some students. What we found was that they really revere teachers," she said.


In America, she noted sadly, "it's a sort of cultural mind set for some people that teachers are sort of chumps who aren't able to make it in the private sector, so we teach. Or, that we really could make it in the private sector, but we're just really kind of stupid for trading all that earning power for a job in education. I think we're seeing fewer and fewer career teachers."

But despite her concerns, Jensen believes she made the right career decision. "In numerous intangible ways, teachers positively influence their students' lives," she said. "Often you don't know what your influence is on kids until years after they've left you."

Wal-Mart hypocrisy

After much opposition, construction will soon get under way for the super-sized Wal-Mart store in Hermantown. I'm not an apologist for Wal-Mart, but would someone explain to me why people complain about that company, while at the same time, many of those same folks shop at their stores?

Healthy on the outside

I have no explanation for this, but the next time you walk through a supermarket, note that most healthy foods are along the four outside walls: Fruits, vegetables, dairy products and juices, to name just a few.

Ralph Doty can be reached at .

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