The DOE’s Future and MORE’s Winning Strategy

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I became a tenured teacher in 2003. Between September of 2000 and June of 2003, I would walk into the main office of my school to see my name on the list of probationary teachers. These were the teachers who had yet to receive tenure. Then, at the start of the 2003 school year, my name was off the list. I did not throw myself a party nor did my principal make any type of to-do about it.

However, I think receiving tenure in the New York City Department of Education today is an accomplishment that calls for the throwing of a party, like a Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation. In fact, I cannot remember the last time a teacher with whom I have worked has received tenure. There is an excellent and dedicated teacher at my school who is in her 4th year and, not surprisingly, got her probation extended another year last year.

This is a trend happening all over the city. Teachers are being denied tenure one or two years in a row before they are unceremoniously herded out of the system. How dedicated or effective a teacher is matters not. Principals are obviously under pressure from the DOE to deny tenure as much as possible. Even worse, tenure is not what it used to be, especially with the Race to the Top evaluation system now in place.

Many veteran teachers, myself included, have expressed outrage over the lack of ownership demonstrated by NYC teachers over their profession and their union. The vast majority did not even bother to cast a vote in the most recent union elections.

Yesterday I ran into a former colleague who retired last year. She looked very rested and happy. I saw on her face the joy she must have felt for not having to be evaluated by exam scores or implement a set of ill-conceived standards. My words to her were “you got out at the right time” and she totally agreed.

This is a teacher of the baby boom generation, that massive sector of the American workforce who is starting to collect Social Security and Medicare. Many baby boomers in the DOE must feel as if they are sprinting through a mine field, hoping to make it to retirement safely before a bad evaluation hobbles their chances of a peaceful dotage.

With the exodus of the baby boom generation, as well as the revolving door of Gen Xer and Millennials brought about by the rampant denial of tenure, we should wonder no more as to why teachers in NYC are not taking ownership of their working conditions. The fact of the matter is very few teachers in the system look into the near and distant futures and see themselves working inside of a DOE school building.

So voting in union elections, going to union meetings, attending protests of the Panel for Educational Policy and the rest of the things that activist teachers do must seem like a whole bunch of useless work to young and veteran teachers alike. They cannot be blamed for this. There surely are many young teachers who intended to make education their life’s work, or many older teachers who would have wanted to stay on just a little bit longer, but cannot do so due to the efforts of Pharaoh Bloomberg and his Queen Consort, Dennis Walcott, to turn public school teaching into a temporary gig.

And then there is that other group of younger teachers who are working on their administrative licenses. Generally speaking, they tend to teach non-core or non-academic classes, tend to not be very dedicated to what they do inside of the classroom and tend to not be very good at whatever it is they do inside of the classroom. This is just what I have seen from my experience. I am sure there are plenty of exceptions. This young crop, many of whom are more likely to get tenure if they do not already have it, may not be longed for the DOE either.

With the prospect of a Bill de Blasio mayoralty starting in 2014, many people are expecting big changes to Department of Education headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse. De Blasio has never really been a fan of Tweed. I hear stories everyday through the grapevine of Tweedies and people from the various DOE networks jumping ship to other jobs in anticipation of the de Blasio era. There seems to be a general sense that he is going to clean house once he inhabits Gracie Mansion, which is certainly welcome news to teachers who care about public education. If this is indeed the case, where will these young people with administrative hopes go?

Years ago there was a young teacher at our school who fit the description of the bureaucracy-climber described above. He taught with us for one year before getting an assistant principal’s job somewhere else. He was an AP for around one year before going off to work at Tweed doing God knows what. From what I saw of him, the only skill he mastered was the ability to kiss the right posteriors, and he mastered this better than most anyone I have ever seen. What will become of him and those of his ilk? Will the ass-kissery that is their stock-in-trade be less of an asset (no pun intended) in de Blasio’s DOE?

Chances are, the field of administrative sinecures at the DOE will greatly decrease in the near future. That means these young teachers either have to be really lucky, really connected or really dedicated to making things work as a classroom teacher. Barring these things, they will have to find another profession or another school system.

That means that the next few months and years will be a time of great flux in the DOE. Current and aspiring Tweedies are going to be jumping ship. Principals will be trying to weed out the probationary teachers to whom they have refused tenure. More baby boomers will retire once they get the chance. And, finally, if the recent Daily News and New York Post hit pieces are any indication, Bloomclot is on one last push to get those teachers awaiting termination hearings out of the door.

So who is left in the system that has the most vested interest in improving our students’ learning conditions? First, there are teachers like me, the veteran 30-somethings to whom retirement is a distant prospect. Second, there are the first-year teachers who have come out of traditional teacher education programs (that is to say, not Teach for America), whose prospects for tenure might be better in three years under a de Blasio DOE than they are now in the Bloomclot DOE. Finally, there are the teachers of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the ATRs, who generally are veterans who continue to rotate from school to school without classes of their own.

If MORE wants a shot at winning the next UFT elections, these are the groups to whom they must appeal. These are the people who will most likely hunker down in the DOE for the long haul. If recent history is any guide the younger generation, the ones who elected Obama and de Blasio and started Occupy Wall Street, will be receptive to the “social justice” aspect of MORE’s platform. Social justice, however, must ride the coattails of bread-and-butter union issues and not the other way around.

MORE must paint for teachers a picture of what the teaching profession can look like. Solid workplace protections, small class sizes, a deemphasizing of standardized testing and a respect for the autonomy of educators as professionals, these are the things that will matter in the upcoming union elections. Thanks to a crop of new principals who have imbibed the Bloomclot method of systematic workplace bullying; thanks to the budget cuts that have swelled the size of our classes; thanks to the Race to the Top evaluations that have institutionalized the standardized testing regime; thanks to the prospect of Common Core that takes so much of the joy and creativity out of education, the imprint of over a decade of reformer philosophy will be felt in our schools for some time. MORE must attack each of these things head-on with an alternative vision of what the teaching profession in NYC can be.

Doing these things will paint MORE as a stark and highly desirable contrast to the Unity leadership of our union that has been complicit in this reformer legacy. They can paint the Unity method of caving to the reformers as the stuffy old status quo. Seasoning their rhetoric with the right amount of social justice will set them up to be the next wave of civil rights leaders, much like the reformers started using the language of civil rights over a decade ago to give their destructive policies a pious sheen into which the general public bought. MORE, by properly tailoring their message what promises to be the backbone of our union in the decades to come, can become a legitimate threat to the Unity stranglehold on power.

MORE will take a step towards building this new union coalition tomorrow with the “Win Back Wednesday” rally tomorrow at 4:00 pm outside of UFT headquarters at 52 Broadway. I will be there and hope to see you there as well.

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One response to “The DOE’s Future and MORE’s Winning Strategy

  1. Reading your last 2 posts you lay out 2 paths to MORE “winning” the union. One is union elections which without major changes in the UFT constitution is almost impossible as they have bullet proofed themselves with at-large voting and retiree influence. The other path is harder but more interesting and possible — winning school by school and beginning to pack the DA with opposition people. Then it is possible to use that mechanism to force constitutional changes. This is a very long haul and given the changes in personnel a group like MORE will go through, finding a consistent voice to articulate this vision will suffer its ups and downs. What is needed is having faith in the democratic process which will at times disappoint people — lack of quick response, developing new leaders etc.
    One thing I will point out — one of our newest and most active people is a 5th year TFA and awesome – and tells us she has lots of fellow TFAs who are more MORE than E4E.

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