First Person

Voices: Reconnecting with mentors via social media

Julia Rappaport, the Managing Editor of Communications and Social Media at Facing History and Ourselves, writes about the value social networks can have reconnecting students to their former teachers.

Laura Johnson, 17, works on a computer between classes at Florence High School in this EdNews file photo.
Laura Johnson, 17, works on a computer between classes at Florence High School in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Social networks today are our photo albums and address books, our cocktail parties and newspapers. Recently, one of my social networks took on a new function: a virtual classroom.

I knew even before handing in my last paper of junior year that my high school United States history teacher was going to be one of those life-changing ones. Energetic and enthusiastic, he challenged his students and brought out the best in us. Once, during a lesson on westward expansion in the United States, he literally dropped to the floor to get our attention as he taught about the spread of smallpox to the Native American population.

Part of what made José so impactful as an educator was his commitment to getting students out of the classroom to learn. In addition to teaching me about the world in class, he helped me pave roads out into that world. As a junior, he encouraged me to apply to a summer study abroad program in Italy – it would be the longest amount of time I had ever spent away from home, I didn’t speak a word of Italian beyond spaghetti, and I was terrified. And he didn’t stop there.

“Get out there,” he said as he sent another application my way, this time to a semester-away program in New York City that would take place during my second-to-last semester of high school. This was a man who made learning happen. He pushed his students beyond what we thought of as our own limits, and, in doing so, expanded our viewpoints, our understanding of the world around us, and those in our universe of obligation.

After graduating from high school, José remained important in my memory, but – as is so often the case with educators – his time as my mentor was up. He was on to a new set of students; I was on to new teachers, courses, and campuses. I remember thinking at the time that it was too bad that there seems to be an unnatural end for the length of time we get teachers as mentors. Their lessons remain in our minds, but as we leave school, most of the time we no longer continue that mentor relationship.

Recently, though, I’ve seen this begin to change. Educators – along with the rest of us – are still figuring out how to best use media and social networks like Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. How private should we be? Should we connect with colleagues or friends we haven’t spoken to in years? What is social media’s role in our day-to-day life? But as we begin to figure out with what it is we’re comfortable,  some educators are beginning to use social networks to extend their reach out of the classroom – and beyond the confines of high school, college, or middle school.

A few years ago, a Facebook request from José landed in my inbox. I was two years into my life after college, and it had been probably a good six years since I’d last seen or talked with José – likely at my high school graduation. “José!” I wrote in a Facebook message back to him, “What’s up?? This just made my day!” I told him about studying history in college and my life after graduation – how I got a job as a college admission officer before landing a gig as a reporter for an award-winning newspaper on Martha’s Vineyard. “I am loving it. I’m getting all into Vineyard history and spend tons of time in the archives, which I 100 percent chalk up to your history reenactments in class,” I wrote. He wrote back a few days later. “Julie,” he said. “You make me so proud.”

Every couple of years, José and I exchange messages on Facebook, catching up on work and life. It’s nice, but what’s better is being able to have his thoughts on current events, the articles he finds interesting, and the music he likes in my Facebook news feed. Though they might seem like routine posts to his friends and family, but to a former student, the posts allow me to continue learning from his perspective, worldview, teaching strategies. They become mini-lessons that, although they arrive now in a social media news feed rather than in a classroom, continue to influence my understanding of the world around me.

A few months ago, I heard from José again. It had been almost two years since we last exchanged updates. I opened the message and was shocked to find the letter of recommendation José wrote for me when I was applying to college over a decade ago. Reading it, I was reminded of who I was as a student in his class – hardworking, tirelessly curious, ready to soak up the world. As an adult juggling work, life, bills, friends, family, reading, eating, sleeping, exercising, and more, it’s easy to forget those young people we once were – those versions of ourselves that got us started on the paths we now tread every day. Reading that was a reminder of where I started and of what I’m capable. It was a reminder from a mentor who, at another time, might have been relegated to memory, but who today, thanks to social networks that can connect and inform us, is just a click away.

This post was originally published on the Facing History tech blog InterFacing

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.