First Person

Going The Extra Mile

A few weeks ago, a parent sent a note to my principal. In part it said, “Ms. Whitehouse is an asset to your school. I only wish there were more teachers like her who would go the extra mile for the kids.”

I was touched by this mother’s kind words and the thoughtfulness displayed in taking the time to compose and send the note, particularly in the current teacher-bashing atmosphere. The note worked also made me think about that “extra mile” — who runs it and how far it actually is.

Every morning several teachers arrive at school by 7 a.m. (We’d arrive earlier but we are not allowed inside the building until then.) We prepare for our day by organizing lesson resources. We make copies (when the copy machine is working) and put notes on the board. We grade homework and analyze data. We fill out paperwork, plan trips and clean desks with anti-bacterial wipes. Some of us water plants, read professional materials, or prepare our bulletin boards. (That feels like a mile.) A little before 8 a.m., the “show” begins and until 3 p.m. it is a whirlwind of lessons and assessments, student conferences, planning, and duty in the yard, bathroom and cafeteria. Many of us skip “duty-free” lunch to run detention, tutor students or attend meetings. (That’s at least two miles, isn’t it? Cause I’m winded.)

When the students leave, our day is not done. Teacher “milers” stay behind to straighten up, review supply needs, gather original materials that need to be copied, and reflect on the day’s lessons or a student’s errant behavior. We look over students’ work and think how best to address their deficits and highlight their strengths. We assess ourselves and redesign our lessons. We make phone calls to parents. Sometimes we speak with colleagues about upcoming tests, lessons, trips, or activities. Often we seek advice from a more seasoned teacher. Some of us attend professional development or college after school. For instance, several evenings a week, Ms. Lichtman takes classes which keep her away from home until 9:30 p.m. (That’s definitely got to be a couple of miles.)

After we leave school, our race is not over. Often I go to my local library to augment classroom reading materials. Other teachers go to Staples or the art store for supplies. Sometimes we go to the photo shop for prints of our latest class outing or activity. Sometimes teachers go to the supermarket for snacks for the kids. (Okay, maybe that’s not a whole mile but surely half a mile?)

Once at home, teachers write create assessments and lessons or tweak old ones. Many of us design our own graphic organizers to scaffold difficult material. We spend time thinking about how to break difficult concepts into more digestible pieces. We look for ways to make dry material interesting, fun, and relatable to teens. We browse the web looking for support materials and lesson ideas. Special-education teachers, such as Ms. Samuel, work from home writing Individualized Education Plan goals. She spends hours tailoring IEPs so that each is truly reflective of her students’ talents and challenges. Other teachers draft communications to parents, such as the letter I wrote after the state exams describing how hard their children worked but also explaining that school was not over and that it was important to keep sending their children to class. When we finally close our laptops, it is frequently past 10 p.m. Sometimes I rely on the sound of Jimmy Fallon’s theme music to signal it is 1 a.m. and long past my bedtime. (Surely that must have been a mile or four.)

Teacher “athletes” make contributions in lots of ways. One of our teachers ran the Lego program for an entire year without pay because the budget had been cut. That meant that two Saturdays a month and twice after school, for two to three hours at a time, she donated her time. Our seventh-grade science teacher, Mr. Wang, volunteered four hours a week for 12 weeks, to run the cross-country club. He also purchased batons and arranged for Columbia University representatives to visit to correct students’ running form. Additionally, Mr. Wang also runs a prep class for specialized high school applicants, again without pay. (I hear at mile 24 we might get a cup of water.)

Did I mention that our team often buys things for our students? There’s the under-paid office staff who often pool their money to purchase graduation outfits for children who otherwise could not attend the event. There’s Ms. Cabrera-Perez, a paraprofessional, who brings clothes to school for students whose families are living on a very tight budget. There is Ms. Tully who, to enliven her drama class and school productions, spent more than $3,000 on dresses, wigs, masks, costumes, hats, etc. Ms. Gabela, the eighth-grade science teacher, purchases almost all her of own academic supplies. From highlighters to Wite-Out, from composition paper to pencils (colored and graphite), from index cards to folders, she clips coupons and shops sales all summer so her students have the materials they need during the school year. And she is not alone: I cannot think of a single teacher at our school who has does not spend his or her own money to support student learning. (Sounds like this part of the run is uphill.)

It is worthy to note, in this Olympic year, that teachers participate in their own incredible, yet largely unrecognized, “athletic” event. Our daily race to educate and enrich the lives of children requires not just “an extra mile” but indeed a team marathon of devotion and sacrifice. So the next time the “Race to the Top” comes up, I hope it conjures thoughts about the teachers and students who actually do the running, how far the race is, and all the obstacles we work to overcome.


First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.