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President's Perspective

Building on our strengths

New York Teacher

Welcome back. I hope you enjoyed a restful summer break and you’re re-energized for the year ahead. As always, we’re here to help you meet the challenges and opportunities that present themselves every September. Please extend yourself to the new teachers who are finding their footing in the classroom this year. We’ve all been there, and it can be daunting.

As public school educators, we’ve come a long way. The public perception of who we are and what we do has changed dramatically. It wasn’t so long ago that it was popular to bash teachers, the teaching profession and public schools. We dealt with those attacks and effectively pushed back. Despite a political environment hostile to workers’ rights and unions, we’ve more than held our own as proud union members as well. We have not just preserved our rights and benefits but have built on them, including attaining greater voice in schools through the DOE-UFT contract. We are well-positioned to build on these strengths in the months ahead.

As it happens, the things we believe in — public education, more school funding, respect for teachers and a system that treats all students fairly — are the things that matter to a great many people around the country. According to recent polls, the number of Americans who support more funding for education and who believe teachers should be paid more is rising, thanks in large part to the wave of teacher strikes and walkouts that began more than a year ago in places like West Virginia and Arizona and continued in California, Illinois and Nevada. Those mass demonstrations served to educate people about how disinvestment in education — and the diversion of public funds to charter schools and vouchers — has hurt their schools and communities. And it was a reminder of the power of organizing to educate and shift the dialogue on important issues.

Over the summer, it was hard to miss how many Democratic candidates for president were talking about the importance of public schools and the threat posed by charter schools and vouchers. Several candidates spoke about the role of unions in building the middle class in this country. Nearly all support the $15 minimum wage and the elimination of anti-worker “right-to-work” laws that depress wages and keep workers voiceless.

Another important outcome of teacher walkouts and strikes was the increase in the number of teachers running for public office at every level of government, from school board to U.S. Senate. That’s a healthy trend that should continue. We have six former UFT members on the New York City Council, which resulted in a strong budget for public education this year. I urge UFT members, especially women, to consider running for elective office where you can make a huge difference for our students and schools. Your union is here to support you in that endeavor.

Those who oppose people organizing for better working conditions and wages have not gone away, of course. And you can be sure the corporate education reformers who promote charters and vouchers — in retreat for now — will be back.

That’s why your voice as a teacher and a union member advocating for students and public schools has never been more important. We’re focused on empowering members, organizing professionals and using our voices to move public education to where we know it should be.

The future of our public schools should be guided by professional voices — by public school educators who work with students every day and know better than anyone what works and doesn’t work in the classroom. That can only happen when every school is organized and empowered and when we engage with one another on the issues that matter to us and our students.

So let’s get to work to keep our union strong and make our voices heard with the tools our contract gives us.  

I wish you all a great school year.