First Person

Voices: Stop blaming Adams 12 teachers

Adams 12 teacher Pamela Maloney says district leaders and parents need to collaborate with teachers to improve schools in her district and beyond.

Over the last few years I have attended many board meetings, but I have never been more disappointed in our district leadership than I have been recently. The deterioration of the relationship between teachers and district leaders has reached a new low. As a teacher I feel constantly criticized and attacked. This “us vs. them” culture is unproductive.

Union members are Republicans, Democrats and independents. For us, it is not about politics; it’s about our students and what’s best for them. Today’s teachers believe we are on the front lines in a war being waged against something that is part of the very fabric of our country and what makes America great and being an American an extraordinary blessing.

I have also heard board members talk about the desire to have highly qualified teachers in Adams 12. I am a National Board Certified Teacher with a master’s degree and a 16-year veteran of the classroom.  I’ve had the privilege to teach and visit educational systems abroad through the U.S. Fulbright Program and the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund. Living in 15 states, I’ve attended and taught at both public and private schools across our country.

Despite my experience, professional achievements and ongoing commitment to refining my practice, I feel discredited, unappreciated and disrespected.  Why do we need highly qualified teachers when we are not trusted to do our jobs or know what we need to do them well?  Rather, we are expected to add more and more to our already heavy loads. As new directives are rolled out of the Educational Support Center, we are required to manage ever-changing curriculum and programs without question. My father is an aviator and I have flown on airplanes to more than 31 countries around the world, but I don’t begin to imagine that I have the ability to tell a pilot how to fly an airplane. I trust that they are well trained and experienced to do their job.

How schools have changed

The public schools where I have taught are more rigorous than any school I attended as a child. I believe teachers today are better trained, more specialized and more dedicated than ever. I loved my second grade teacher, Miss Lipski, but classrooms today look nothing like they did when I was in school. Every year brings bigger challenges than the year before because of the increasingly wide range of abilities and needs I find in my classroom. I can attest that the balance of my classroom has shifted from one or two kids in a class of 25 with these needs to nearly one third or half! In a class of 24 students I struggle daily to manage about nine students with demanding behavioral and academic needs.

Play and experiential learning have been abandoned while at the same time children are getting less of it at home. Curriculum has moved down so that children are expected to master concepts long before you or I encountered them. Yet children are coming to school with more challenges and greater deficits than ever before. It seems like such a travesty that more and more children are coming to school already behind but are encountering a more difficult curriculum. Rather than thinking the system is failing them, it’s easier to blame the teachers. Simultaneously raising standards and increasing accountability with a population of children who are so vastly different from those before is not the solution.

It is unpopular to address how the experiences of many children from birth to age 5 set them up for failure before they even begin compulsory education. It has become popular to vilify teachers for all that children are lacking when they walk through our doors at the age of 5. At Back-to-School Night I tell my parents that they are their child’s first and most important teacher and that I am honored to join their team for the next nine months. I make a firm commitment to helping their children be successful and tell them that I cannot do it alone. I need their help to have the best opportunity to make a difference in their child’s educational achievement.  We are in this together. I remember my parents and teachers being a united front and I, alone, was held responsible and accountable for my performance in school.

When I was 12, I nearly lost my leg to an injury known as compartment syndrome. After emergency surgery, I was told I would never walk again. After many months of physical therapy I regained the use of my leg. Luckily I had a team of highly qualified medical professionals working together to save my leg. In my classroom, I feel like a surgeon who has been given a box of Band-Aids to treat compartment syndrome.

Cooperation vs. competition key

The main driver of success in education is not competition between teachers and schools, but cooperation. Decades ago when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence, it was equity. Norway, like Finland, is a small and not especially diverse country, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result?  Mediocre performance on the PISA test.

We want our children’s future to offer better opportunities than we had. To be prepared for those opportunities they need to be more than mere vessels of rote procedure and information. Leaders in educational practice, research and policy must work together to ensure that our children receive an equally good education no matter what but, the three arenas of education are not engaged in collaboration.  A successful public education system requires adequate funding, elevated respect for the professionals in the field and a partnership between those professionals and the public to put our children first in order to ensure their success. The success of education is dependent on the synergy of these parts.

The current direction of Adams 12 will not lead to this. Right now, there is no synergy. During a time when professional morale in Adams 12 is unbelievably low, it seems unfathomable that the school board has unleashed such a vicious attack on the best resource they have – teachers. Be a champion for education in Adams 12 and work to incorporate the voice of educators when you create educational policy. Return to the culture of cooperation and collaboration with the professionals that stand on the front line every day educating our children.

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.