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Our strength in challenging times

New York Teacher

Michael Mulgrew Headshot
The presidential election results have many of us concerned about what the future holds for our families and our nation. And as public school educators, we are worried about the children in our care — the undocumented immigrants, the children in poverty, the Muslims, the LGBTQ kids. We have heard from many of you about the very real fears of your students and their families.

At the Delegate Assembly on the day after the vote, I turned over the floor to the delegates to reflect on what happened and its implications. A teacher at International HS at Union Square relayed that an 11th-grader confided to him that her dream of going to college died the day before and her parents had started talking about moving back to their home country. A Queens teacher had to calm one 3rd-grader who feared World War III was coming. A Bronx high school teacher shared how she changed the topic of the Socratic seminar she had planned from Shakespeare to the election.

Even as the election of Donald Trump cast a spotlight on just how many people are sick and tired of a government that seems to ignore working people and their needs, the election campaign sadly returned open racism, homophobia and misogyny to the forefront of our national politics. In the short time since Nov. 8, we have heard stories from around the country about hateful signs and messages scrawled on buildings, schools and houses of worship and posted on social media. The threat of mass deportation haunts our immigrant communities. It was in that context that our union called for a Day of Action in our schools on Nov. 21 to speak up for our students and their families.

During our Day of Action, many UFT members conveyed a positive message of unity and support for our students and each other. Some people perceived the Day of Action as an unfair attack on the president-elect, while others felt the union should have attacked him. We had a different goal in mind. Our mission was to demonstrate that New York City public school educators are there for their students as a sign on a classroom door at Flushing International HS in Queens on Nov. 21 reminded students in four different languages: “In this classroom, you are safe. In this classroom, you are respected. In this classroom, you are loved.”

Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have issued strong messages that our state and our city will not enforce discriminatory policies. Let us be on the lookout for bias and bullying, but also let us be a calming influence in schools in this troubled time. Our students need us to do that more than anything else. Our schools must remain a haven for our students, a place where they feel safe and valued. As teachers, our primary duty hasn‘t changed: to keep students inspired and focused on their education.

In times like these, we have to hold fast to our core beliefs: that public education is critical to the future of this country; that all communities within our school communities deserve respect and dignity; and that workers have a right to unionize and be treated fairly. Our union’s history is built on fighting for those core beliefs. Keep in mind that the AFT made its endorsement in the presidential race through the prism of those core values. And nothing that happened on Nov. 8 has changed our core beliefs.

Trump espoused a voucher scheme in one campaign speech, but public education was never part of the debate between the two candidates and did not figure in the calculus of most voters. Around the country in state ballot questions on Nov. 8, voters sided with public education more often than not. Massachusetts voters rejected lifting the cap on charter schools in their state. California voters extended a tax on the state’s wealthiest residents that will provide an estimated $4 billion per year for schools and overturned the ban on bilingual education. Voters in Georgia rejected a proposal that would have allowed the state to take over the lowest-performing schools; voters rightly saw it as a Trojan horse for converting public schools to charter schools. These are victories to build on as we broaden our message about the importance of public education, especially at a time when the forces of privatization are taking the wheel of government.

In the months and years ahead, we are going to face some of the greatest challenges this union and its members have ever faced. There will be seismic policy shifts with Trump as president, both houses of Congress in Republican hands and the U.S. Supreme Court with a right-wing majority. We always try to work with people first but if they attack one of our core beliefs, we have no choice as a union but to fight. This is an opportunity for us to further organize, both among our own members and with others in our communities.

How we fare in this battle will come down to the grit we have. We can draw strength from knowing that our fights have always been righteous fights. We will work with those who share our values — including parent and community groups and civil rights and immigrant rights associations — because we know we are more powerful when we stand together.

We must keep moving forward. Our families, our students and the communities we serve are depending on us. We will get through this together.