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Organizing for all of our sakes

New York Teacher

There’s a groundswell in public education, and I am energized to practice our craft in this historic moment. In 2018, in school districts from West Virginia to Arizona to Kentucky, and now in Denver and Los Angeles, educators and clinicians have raised their voices for changes in working conditions, professional pay, school funding and support for students. In LA, 32,000 members of United Teachers Los Angeles went on strike in January, but in many states where teacher walkouts occurred, educators don’t have the benefit of a strong union.

What enables these educators to agitate for change? How does this mesh with their professional approach to their work? They organize; then they stand up for their students and their profession. Still, many struggle for the kind of rights and benefits negotiated and secured by New York City’s educators in our empowering 2018 DOE-UFT contract.

But our hard-earned rights and benefits become meaningless unless we’re willing to defend them. Standing up for ourselves and our students through collective action looks different from one school to the next, but taken all together, our willingness to act collectively makes us a powerful force for advancing education in our city. Some of our high school members are perfect examples.

Benjamin Cardozo HS, known for its stellar math and science institute, has grappled with some safety issues. With a recent incident, the staff refused to descend into blame games or paralysis. Chapter Leader Dino Sferrazza penned a letter of appreciation for colleagues who continually show concern for the safety and education of their students. Additional chapter meetings and faculty conferences were held to help members identify solutions collectively. The chapter made sure key union staff were in the loop. It also advocated for hiring more school counselors and support staff and held community meetings with all stakeholders.

Chapter Leader Marjorie George and the 275 UFT members at Brooklyn’s Franklin D. Roosevelt HS organized to convince an abusive principal that listening restores dignity to the workplace. A three-year battle included superintendent visits and some of the lowest ratings on the NYC School Survey by teachers for a school leader. The chapter chose Oct. 18, 2018, as its Union Solidarity Day and all dressed in black. UFT members collected bold suggestions for improving school culture and directed 12 of them to the administration. Listening ensued, communication improved and consultation became more effective.

At New Utrecht HS in Brooklyn, a school with a long-stagnant chapter, new chapter leader Marissa Garcia formed a Sunshine Committee. With a monthly $10 member contribution, the committee offers cards or flowers in times of loss, or cake and other refreshments for celebrations. Garcia reinstituted regular meetings to educate members about the value of the DOE-UFT contract and to demonstrate their common challenges, interests and goals. Packed chapter meetings are now the norm.

While we’re all focused on our students and our professional work, don’t forget that everyone who does the work should have a say in it. We can bring our collective bargaining agreement to life by defending our rights in ways big and small. Organized, chapter-led, school-level approaches and solutions not only work, but they also empower members.

Members must have each other’s backs. We must work as a group: Take ownership of the evaluation system; don’t allow a one-way teacher evaluation. Meet to unpack the framework. Go into one another’s classrooms. Work peer-to-peer to help each other develop.

This isn’t a passive path we’ve chosen. Make sure we’re not overworked by things unrelated to student learning. Assure we have time for positive, relaxed relationships with our students. Ensure that our rights are respected. Everybody doesn’t need to do everything, but everybody needs to do something: Join a committee, be part of the school leadership team, attend union rallies.

Above all, remember we depend on one another. We’ll take the lead in organizing political action campaigns and union-initiated grievances, but it’s membership and leadership working together that gets results.

Organizing is professional work. It’s how we keep our profession strong.