First Person

Retaining Our Collective Memory

What knowledge and skills do we want brand-new teachers in New York City to have before they enter a classroom? Besides the obvious — how to plan engaging lessons, how to support students with learning, and how to manage a classroom — what else is critical for the first-time teacher to know? What kind of conversations should an individual have engaged in before New York State grants that person the right to be the lone adult in a classroom full of impressionable minds?

These are some of the questions that a small group of individuals and I have been grappling with during member meetings of the New York Collective of Radical Educators. On the first Friday of every month we sit together to strengthen our analysis of these issues devise strategies to address them.

One of the very first actions that came out of this working group was the creation of an open letter from newer teachers in support of seniority rights. We feel that so-called “great new teachers” are being used as an argument to end the seniority rule for layoffs, even though we as newer teachers recognize the rule’s critical importance to keeping the most experienced teachers in our schools and protecting them from discriminatory dismissal as their compensation increases. I have had many conversations with newer teachers who initially expressed support for Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to end seniority-based layoffs, but then changed their tune as they heard more about the history of the struggle to win and maintain seniority-based layoffs and why its change would negatively affect our students and the cultures of our schools. Our arguments as newer teachers against “merit-based” layoffs are more fully outlined in our letter.

Over the last 10 years under mayoral control, New York City’s teaching force has become significantly less experienced. This change can be attributed, at least in part, to the DOE’s heavy reliance on programs like New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America to do teacher recruitment, which require only a two-year commitment from teachers they hire. Recruits to these programs are required to undergo almost no training or coursework in education before beginning teaching. Not only are they less prepared in basic teaching practices, they also have even less knowledge of education history than traditionally certified teacher who take courses in which they study historical movements within education. There are many important critiques of these alternative-certification programs that are worth developing further, but as I have a tendency to write rather long posts I am going to try to save my thoughts on these critiques for a future piece.

Instead I want to reflect on something I have been thinking about a lot lately: As the teaching force becomes less experienced, we are losing our collective memory. More teachers are walking into classrooms with very little knowledge of the history of struggles within the New York City public school system and with little understanding of the importance of having a strong union to protect students and educators.

I am lucky enough to be able to work closely with quite a few more experienced teachers, and I cherish these relationships. The teachers in my school who have been teaching for a long time have an understanding of the system that I can only dream of having, and I find them to be an invaluable resource when I have a question or want to discuss an idea. After every meeting of the Grassroots Education Movement, which is made up predominantly of teachers with significant experience in the classroom, I leave feeling invigorated by what I have just learned from my more experienced colleagues. Each meeting is like an intense monthly history lesson on anything from the fight for community control and its impact on teacher-community relations to the unrelenting push for privatization that has changed forms over the years but that we are now losing in its current incarnation.

Can we find ways to fill in the gaps in knowledge between experienced educators and those who are less experienced or even alternatively certified? It would be nice if the Department of Education offered these kinds of history lessons, but with its intense focus on new ways to test and hold students and teachers accountable, the DOE seems unlikely to consider the lessons of the past to be important knowledge for its teachers to possess. The UFT could certainly take on that role, and the union does make an impressive catalog of historical articles from the union newspaper available online. But it doesn’t seem to recognize the extent to which the DOE’s new recruitment and retention policies have created a profound divide in beliefs about teacher protections, DOE practices like school closings, and even what constitutes good teaching. The UFT could be countering this divide by offering history lessons in their office or encouraging school-based discussion groups among chapters. Unfortunately this is not happening.

One of the projects our NYCORE working group has decided to tackle is to develop a summer speaker series that would address these knowledge gaps. We are hoping to hold talks this summer on such topics as anti-racist education practice, the benefits and drawbacks of alternative certification programs, the impact of mayoral control, a history of the city’s school system, a history of the UFT, the impact of high-stakes testing, etc. If you’re interested in helping us organize for this series you can join us at the next member meeting.

Of course no speaker series can provide a full opportunity for individuals to develop the understanding that comes with years of teaching experience, but as most of the organizers came through alternative certification programs ourselves, we can at least create a forum that provides access to the concepts and ideas we wish we had been exposed to before our first day in the classroom.

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.