First Person

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

This post is just one of many being published today as part of the #EDUSolidarity project, of which I am an organizer. After you have read this, please take some time to read the wide variety of posts that will be added during the day at EDUSolidarity.us.

edusolidarityBADGE

Right around the time I was elected as my school’s UFT Chapter Leader, my school hired a new principal.  He had taught history for 12 years and is married to an English teacher. He had spent the preceding year at my school as a principal intern, during which I came to know and respect him as a person and educator. When we sat down for our first formal meeting as principal and chapter leader-elects, the first thing he said was, “Steve, you’re a great teacher. So why would you want to be chapter leader?”

I have heard this question too many times.  It assumes the stereotype of the teachers union as home to the despondent, bitter, lazy, kid-haters who teach to get summers off. And I must admit, I was guilty of holding this prejudice to some degree when I became chapter leader.  While I, of course, wanted to take on the role to ensure the fair treatment of teachers at my school, a large part of my motivation was to slowly work to gain a voice within the UFT, so that a good teacher like me could displace an old and bitter one, in the hope that others would follow.  However, what I have discovered in my interactions with people within the UFT and at the various meetings I attend is exactly what is true of teachers I have met in my career: The overwhelming majority of people who step foot into a classroom want nothing more than to do right by their kids.

Now, there is certainly disagreement on how to do this. I know people who are great, award-winning teachers who have radically different pedagogical styles than I do. They might even do some things that I would counsel the teachers I mentor against doing. But different teaching styles are necessary, as they reach different students.  I would never want every teacher in the world to be exactly like me.

The same is true when it comes to educational policy. I only agree with the educational policies of the UFT slightly more often than I agree with the policies of the New York City Department of Education. I wouldn’t trust either to run schools without the checks and balances the other provides. There are times when change is a good thing, and sometimes that needs to be enforced from on high. There are also times when these “new ideas” are ridiculous and need to be stopped. There is a need for meaningful accountability for teachers. There are also times when the system acts out of expediency rather than in the best interest of students, and the union needs to be there to speak up for our students.

The area that the union is almost always right about, though, is insisting that teachers be treated as professionals. This means ensuring that we are compensated in such a way that allows one to teach, support a family, and retire. This means having meaningful, objective criteria for evaluation and layoffs that is not based on poorly constructed tests. And due to the nature of the job, this means we need tenure protection from arbitrary dismissal.

I work with a great teacher who nearly lost his job last year because students stole a copy of a grade-wide exam off his desk. I know someone in Virginia, where I started my career, who was falsely accused of sexual harassment by a student after she did poorly on an exam. I have seen teachers assigned classes for which they are neither certified nor trained to teach. I had parents calling for my dismissal my first year because I asked their children to write persuasive essays representing the opposite point of view on an issue they cared about.  Great teachers are so hard to produce and find that we need a system that ensures we never arbitrarily lose them.

More than anything, however, I need the protection of my union and my tenured due process rights to consistently improve and innovate as a teacher. I am a very good teacher right now by any measurable objective standard, including that of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards who certified me two years ago, as well as by the subjective account of anyone who has ever observed me.  On my best days, I am great and every year, there are more and more of these days.

But here’s why I need tenure to get better: I need to be able to try new things to better improve my students’ learning.  If I did the same thing this year that I did last year, my students’ growth would stagnate.  This means taking risks.

New things do not always go well; most of the new things I try work, but some don’t.  By being able to try new things, over time, I am constantly improving in my ability to serve my students, bringing me ever closer to the sustained greatness to which I aim.

If I had to worry about arbitrary dismissal as an “at-will” employee, I would not have tried many of the great things I do.  I would continue doing what I have always done because it is safe. I have written before that good teaching takes courage.  This is certainly the case, but seeking to improve as a teacher should never mean risking one’s job, which is exactly what I would be doing if I were still an at-will employee as I was in the right-to-work state of Virginia.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.