Some 1,600 UFT members came together at the union’s Spring Education Conference to recharge and recommit to making New York City the best urban school system in the nation even as they face a serious threat to their livelihoods from the pending U.S. Supreme Court Janus v. AFSCME case.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew warned the packed ballroom at the New York Hilton on May 19 that the teacher walkouts in seven states were in response to a decades-long campaign by a handful of wealthy and powerful families “who have taken everything away from those teachers” and who continue their efforts to undermine public education and workers’ rights across the country.
“But we are not West Virginia,” he said. “We have a plan.”
In a brief but vivid history lesson, Mulgrew contrasted a pre-union, powerless teacher coming into the principal’s office, hat in hand, to plead for a raise with today’s army of public school educators who board buses each year to Albany to demand fair funding for public schools and who benefit from more than 60 years of union empowerment.
“We have to fight not as individuals, but all of us together,” he said.
The busy day began with a town hall conversation between Mulgrew and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who voiced his support for paid parental leave for UFT members and making funding for Teacher’s Choice permanent.
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, a featured luncheon speaker, spoke passionately about how public school teaching is a “matter of social justice” because public school educators have the ability to transform their students’ lives. He bemoaned the “deafening silence at the national level” about the importance of public education and the need to support teachers.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli spoke about the unions’ leadership in defeating the state constitutional convention proposal that could have jeopardized public employee pensions as a case study of what can be accomplished when union members stand together.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appearance at the luncheon was greeted with some boos and chants of “paid parental leave” by audience members frustrated that he has yet to grant that benefit despite his promises. City Comptroller Scott Stringer, for his part, said paid parental leave must be a reality in New York City for teachers. “We can get this done,” he said.
Participants had their choice of seven in-depth workshops, all available for 2.5 CTLE hours.
At the workshop on using STEM projects to nurture creativity and independence, Samantha Revells of PS 284 in Brooklyn was enthralled with the virtual field trips that allow participants, using iPads, to access the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and “tour” the rooms that show how immigrants lived at the turn of the 20th century.
“I thought of my class immediately,” Revells said. “We’re doing a unit on similarities of cultures, and the virtual field trip can be used for comparisons and to illustrate how to make inferences about culture.”
Tiffany Patterson, a teacher at Hillcrest HS in Queens, found the panel on creating welcoming schools for all children, including LGBTQ students, especially meaningful.
“I teach ESL and a lot of my students come from communities where it’s not safe to come out,” Patterson said. “It’s my responsibility to be sensitive to that.”
In between the conference events, participants crowded the exhibit hall to pick up resources for their classrooms and to see the skills and sample the wares of students from career and technical education high schools.
During one of the day’s lighter moments, UFT Director of Community and Parent Outreach Anthony Harmon, the master of ceremonies, stepped out from behind the podium to stand resplendent in an authentic Scottish kilt. And to the skirl of a bagpipe by a kilted piper, the dignitaries took their seats on the dais.
—Linda Ocasio contributed reporting.