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Standing together, fighting and winning

Although delayed because of Hurricane Sandy, UFT event to honor today’s leaders is a hit

Teacher Union Day may have been postponed, but a record crowd of more than 1,200 Miller Photography

Teacher Union Day may have been postponed, but a record crowd of more than 1,200 attended.
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Honoree Michael Mendel (right) with UFT President Michael Mulgrew. Miller Photography

Charles Cogen Award: Honoree Michael Mendel (right) with UFT President Michael Mulgrew.

Honoree Anthony Harmon with a scrapbook of his union activity put together by on Miller Photography

Jules Kolodny Award: Honoree Anthony Harmon with a scrapbook of his union activity put together by one of his middle school teachers.

Two teachers made difference for honoree

two-teachers-made-difference-for-honoree-1Miller PhotographyAnthony Harmon, flanked by his middle school teachers Arnetta Fischer (left) and Diane Browser.

Little did Jules Kolodny Award winner Anthony Harmon know that one of two middle school teachers he credited with setting him on the right path has been keeping a scrapbook of his accomplishments all these years.

Harmon described being “a new transplant from West Virginia” at IS 210 in Brooklyn, where the kids all knew each other, had friendships and teased him about his southern accent, when “two women who cared” came to his rescue.

He had not been in touch with his English teacher, Diane Browser, or his math teacher, Arnetta Fischer, for more than 30 years until a serendipitous moment recently brought him face to face with Fischer.

“Out of the blue,” he said. He knew then that he wanted both to share in his Teacher Union Day honor.

Harmon was seated with his family at the event when Browser pulled out the scrapbook. Amazed, he leafed through the pages filled with New York Teacher newspaper clippings chronicling his journey from teacher up through the ranks of the UFT.

And there it was — the button he had made for his teacher so long ago in shop class. It read: “The best part of being a student is having a teacher like you.”

“They’re back in my life and probably the reason I became a teacher,” Harmon said. He cited the middle school years as “a critical time in every young person’s life. Their words of encouragement, the fact that they cared, proved a deciding factor for me.”

The “two women who cared” are still active UFT members. Browser is now a school psychologist at PS 183 in Manhattan, and Fischer is a math teacher at Ben Banneker Academy in Brooklyn.

With the Jan. 17 deadline to have a teacher evaluation agreement in place missed after Mayor Bloomberg blew up the one that had been reached on the deadline date, a steadfast UFT President Michael Mulgrew assured the largest Teacher Union Day gathering ever, “We will stand together, fight together and we will win.”

More than 1,200 union members whistled and cheered their support in a standing ovation in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria on Jan. 27, when they met to celebrate one another’s accomplishments and to rededicate themselves to the solidarity and strength that has marked the UFT since its founding more than 50 years ago.

Addressing the evaluation struggle, Mulgrew said, “This is not just about working conditions but about supporting teachers, allowing them to focus on teaching, not on paperwork for the DOE.” He vowed only to agree “to what makes schools better.”

Vice President for Education Catalina Fortino, the chair of the event, noted that Teacher Union Day was originally scheduled for Nov. 4, but was postponed because of Hurricane Sandy. “We commemorate our strength” by holding the annual ceremony, she said.

The audience cheered loudly again when Mulgrew announced that UFT Secretary Michael Mendel was the recipient of the union’s highest honor, the Charles Cogen Award, which memorializes the man who led the historic 1960 strike that won collective-bargaining rights. Mulgrew praised Mendel, saying that his 40 years of “caring and passion are unequaled. He added that Mendel “watches out for all of us” and “pushes us to do better.”

In accepting the award, Mendel said, “I don’t understand how working people wouldn’t want to be in a union ... don’t understand strength in numbers ... that unions are the hope of the middle class.”

Anthony Harmon, the director of parent and community outreach and Dial-A-Teacher, described as a “whirlwind” for his innumerable UFT responsibilities, spoke of his pride in receiving the Jules Kolodny Award because of Kolodny’s early involvement in the civil rights movement.

“I’m proud to know that my union, the United Federation of Teachers, played a significant role in the civil rights movement,” he said. “Teacher Union Day is our day. For we are the union, joining together for a common purpose.”

Harmon also thanked two teachers whose nurturing had turned his life around and who were there to see him honored. [See “Two teachers made difference for honoree,” below.]

David Wittes Award winner Anthony Sclafani spoke of the “joy and pain” he senses in visits to schools and the “climate of disrespect.”

The Brooklyn special representative cited the UFT as “a fortress to keep hope alive” in these days of closing schools and threats to tenure and seniority.

It was fitting that District 24 Representative Rosemary Parker, lauded as “feisty and a pit bull” in her advocacy for special needs students, received the Sidney Harris Award. Harris, like Parker, worked tirelessly on behalf of disabled children in his long career as a union activist.

Parker said that, because what happens in childhood affects the path we take, “we need to be a voice for the voiceless.”

Backer/Scheintaub Award winners Anthony Klug, the chapter leader at Wadleigh HS for the Performing and Visual Arts, and Wilma Velazquez, the special representative and political action coordinator at the UFT’s Manhattan borough office, embody the union leadership qualities of those for whom their award is named.

Klug rallied parents, staff and community members to save his school from closure. Velazquez chided Bloomberg for vilifying the union and called on members to fight anti-union sentiments.

“We are the UFT,” she stated proudly.

The Audrey Chasen Award, named for a teacher shot and killed in the crossfire of a drug battle in Brooklyn on her way back from a workshop she had conducted, was presented to David Kazansky, the director of school safety and the Victim Support Program, for his innovative anti-bullying campaign and his continuing work to keep schools safe. He urged members to support “sensible gun control.”

Many other members, including many chapter leaders, were honored for the myriad ways they support the union and their colleagues and advocate on behalf of the city’s children.

Among the recipients of a UFT School Partnership Award for collaboration was the principal of Williamsburg HS for Architecture and Design who was cited for turning the school around and for hiring five teachers serving in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool because he values experience. Principal Gill Cornell said, “You gain power by sharing.”

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