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Collaborating during a crisis

Chapter leaders rise to the occasion

New York Teacher
Elizabeth Wojtal

Elizabeth Wojtal, the chapter leader and coordinator of the four pre-K sites in District 21 in Brooklyn, created an online newsletter of resources for her members.

No New York City public school educator could have imagined in September that kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms would become classrooms. As everyone works to reenvision daily work in this new time of distance learning, chapter leaders across the city have become crucial guides for their members even as they, too, must rethink how they perform their role in the remote era.

“The rules are new and there are a lot more questions than answers,” says Chapter Leader James Eugenio, a language arts teacher at IS 228 in Brooklyn. “So we all have to stay flexible.”

Chapter leaders are making sure members receive and understand the steady flow of guidance emails the UFT is sending out as details governing remote learning continue to be revised and updated. They are relaying members’ concerns to administrators. And they are heeding their own advice to members: Be flexible and creative.

Eugenio is reaching out with more emotional support for the staff at his Gravesend school. He also participates in conference calls with colleagues and long conversations with his district representative. The virtual lunches he arranged with fellow UFT members at his school began as social gatherings but quickly morphed into swap sessions for trading ideas and best practices.

“My biggest challenge now is not having answers for my members at my fingertips,” said Chapter Leader Fredda Pichardo, the librarian and 2nd- and 3rd-grade intervention teacher at PS 7 in Elmhurst, Queens. For example, Pichardo has always prided herself on knowing the contract so well she could provide information immediately. “Colleagues felt comforted that I had the answer that would help them.”

Considering everything that has changed, those answers are not as readily available. “Now,” Pichardo says, “I have to say tomorrow or next week. We are all trying.”

James Eugenio

Chapter Leader James Eugenio has convened virtual lunches with fellow members at IS 228 in Brooklyn.

Elizabeth Wojtal, the chapter leader and coordinator of the four pre-K sites in District 21 in Brooklyn, said she and her staff faced the challenge of preparing lessons for children too young to log on and sit still. They had to enlist parents to be actively involved in implementing curriculum.

“It’s unprecedented the way people have stepped up,” she said.

Wojtal put together an online newsletter of UFT resources and other important information for her members.

At John Dewey HS in Brooklyn, art teacher and Chapter Leader Mike Solo underscores the need for flexibility and professional discretion in these uncharted waters. “It’s all new and a little scary,” he said.

Solo is part of a chapter leader “buddy system” in his district that has chapter leaders pairing up to work on problems and issues together.

Chapter Leader Dina Barghouti of PS 503 in Brooklyn has positioned herself as a reliable conduit to the principal.

“I hear what my members are saying, and I take those messages to the principal,” she said. Likewise, every day she sends a summary of her interactions with the principal back to her members.

Barghouti says she counts on reports from her UFT consultation committee and emails from members to help her keep a pulse on issues and concerns.

She said she recently asked her principal to “slow down and trust us because we’re learning just as the children are.”