Educational excellence is unionism

Pat Arnow UFT Vice President Janella Hinds (third from left) discusses course electives with English teachers at the Brooklyn HS for the Arts and Chapter Leader Tim Evans (right).

Our pursuit of educational excellence for our students and ourselves — as teachers, paraprofessionals and other pedagogues — is deeply compatible with advancing our profession through trade unionism as UFT members. We do not have to pick a side.

Teacher voice permeates through every instance of distributive decision-making and school-based option ratification, or through member-directed co-planning sessions.

These professional opportunities — available to members as a result of union advocacy and collective bargaining — play out in ways large and small. In high schools from the Bronx to Brooklyn, teachers are advancing our profession daily, fine-tuning their practice and uncovering new ways to help their students achieve at higher levels.

In the high school division, we’re tasked with launching young women and men from our classrooms into the world beyond, a challenging undertaking when operating as an individual but achievable when we work together.

At the Brooklyn HS for the Arts, UFT members employed the school-based option process in the UFT-DOE contract to carve out teacher-driven collaborative departmental meetings as a Circular 6R responsibility, two self-directed prep periods and a ninth period in each school day. Those changes have enabled them to support one another in their content-area specialties and support student learning by sharing strategies and ideas.

UFT members at the school place a premium on teacher voice. They credit Chapter Leader Tim Evans’ approachable manner, extensive knowledge of the contract and steadying influence — coupled with Principal Daniel Vecchiano’s “open-door policy” — with making it easier for them to exercise that voice.

During the English department’s common-planning time, English teacher James Basile spoke about the benefits of a ninth period. “We wanted the flexibility to offer the students the extra academics and the arts.”

Basile also made a strong case for introducing a film course as an English elective, and the administration agreed. And Rebecca Cohen remarked on how she successfully “planted the seed” to elevate journalism to an English course offering, not simply an occasional club activity.

At Longwood Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, the renewal school formerly known as Banana Kelly, members are taking ownership within their departments, instituting teacher-led inter-visitation and placing a greater reliance on data. Chapter Leader Cristina Abellas says these union-supported initiatives are enabling members to drive instructional decision-making and school improvement initiatives.

Departmental co-planning at Longwood Prep provides members with the opportunity to dive deeply into student-level data and “adjust teaching to help scholars master tasks when they’re struggling,” Abellas said. Longwood Prep brought on a Peer Collaborative Teacher — a teacher leadership position negotiated in the 2014 collective bargaining agreement — upgrading the school’s instructional practice to benefit both members and students.

Using the time set aside in the workweek for professional development established in the 2014 contract, staff members each are assigned four students, one per grade, and tasked with giving them their full support.

“Now they see we all care about them; it’s not just their classroom teachers,” Abellas said.

Abellas said the new union-supported initiatives are yielding results at the school: In the past two years, 15 students received full scholarships to Monroe College; daily attendance is on the rise; students who have previously left the Regents essay blank are making attempts; and 27 students receive academic support on Saturdays.

Classroom inter-visitation at Longwood is facilitating learning as teachers work together to gain new strategies to develop individual students even as they strengthen their own practice. Members are creating teacher practice checklists that are about the student, not the teacher.

Members at Longwood Prep are also building a positive environment. Citing school visits from UFT representatives from the high school division, the pension department, the Welfare Fund, certification and more, Abellas said, “The union brings a lot of clarity to the work.” Plus, members see the power of the union and the support it gives their chapter leader.

In describing the process that moved his school forward, Brooklyn HS for the Arts social studies teacher Kyle Wenz attributed teacher voice in his school to the UFT’s strong presence. “We needed to start the conversation to create a mission statement. The union drove it,” he said.

The UFT members in these two schools — and high schools across the city — have developed authentic common planning and have built community. What the union has fostered allows them to live out their missions. They’ve created school cultures in which union members pursue excellence in teaching and learning. They give voice to new teachers, veteran teachers and student teachers.

Excellence in education is not separate from unionism. It’s about how they combine to create the school community our students deserve. That educational excellence is a measure of our unionism.

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