ACT I: A (DIM) STAR IS BORN
It is said, by whom I do not know, that parents set the tone for all of the future relationships their children will have. Fathers set the tone for all male relationships. Mothers set the tone for the female relationships. My teaching career, born in the year 2000 when I was 21 years of age, was raised by two parents who shaped the educator I became both inside and outside of the classroom.
My first principal, the man who gave me my first big break, the father of my career, was Old School in every sense of the word. Not only did he approve of and nurture my traditional style of teaching, he was the type of mensch who looked a man in the eye and told the truth. One of the first persons to whom he introduced me was my United Federation of Teachers Chapter Leader, the mother of my teaching career.
My first UFT Chapter Leader was certainly old, just not Old School. The principal introduced her as “the person you go to when you are in trouble with me.” It made sense. When father is angry with son, mother should temper his ire. Mother would come into my classroom from time to time. On some occasions, she would ask me a relatively trivial question. On other occasions, she would just show up and stand there at the back of the room, arms folded in grim observation. This type of behavior just seemed natural to a greenhorn like me.
On those occasions when I was not teaching, I would sometimes catch mother in the principal’s office speaking to father with the door closed. They were talking serious school business, I gathered, the types of things that I might one day understand when I became an adult. When father would have man-to-man conversations with me regarding the birds and the bees of my teaching, he seemed awfully knowledgeable about what went on in my classroom in the moments he was not there. What an intelligent and perceptive man he was. I surely was one lucky teacher-son.
It was not until a few years later that I realized my principal was not the omniscient creature I thought he was. After a few of the remarks I made to my mother in confidence got back to father, not to mention other members of the extended family, I finally realized that my union mother was nothing more than a snitch. Meanwhile, my principal father showed a genuine interest in my career and let it be known on many occasions that I had what it took to one day become Teacher of the Year. These family dynamics from my formative teaching years forever shaped my style as an educator, colleague and employee.
Specifically, I came to think that the job of a Chapter Leader was to inform on the staff. She was the administration’s eyes and ears. As a result, I learned not to confide anything to whoever held that role. Conversely, I came to think of the principal as the guardian of my career. He brought me into profession and he could take me out of it. I might not be his friend but I could take him at his word, since he just wants what is best for me and the school.
Over the course of the next few years I would have many principals and many Chapter Leaders. Day in and day out I would close my classroom door and work on being that Teacher of the Year my father had seen in me. Perhaps I was partially motivated by a desire to earn a father’s respect, especially considering that I had grown up without a real father when I was a real kid. No matter what types of principals I had, whether they were men or women or white or minority, I did everything they ever asked of me. They were the bosses. My place was not to sabotage or question the boss’ decision. My job was to teach and that is exactly what I did.
On other hand I saw the Chapter Leaders, whether they were men or women or white or minority, as nuisances. Regardless of who they were, I just assumed they were out to get as much dirt on me as possible. There were teachers who had gotten in trouble. For whatever reason, the Chapter Leader was always there with the embattled teacher. It was not a great leap of faith for me to assume that they were in trouble because of the Chapter Leader.
At the end of the day, none of this was my concern. Teachers would complain to me about this administrator or that administrator. I assumed that these teachers were just crazy, lazy, incompetent or all of the above. Why was I able to lock myself away in my classroom and teach how I wanted to teach while these other teachers were always in trouble? It must have been their fault. As my first principal showed me, administrators are always fair, honest, upright and want what is best for their staff. How could you have trouble with such perfect people?
So, maybe you can say I was warped by my early career experiences. Although I do not believe these things anymore, the innocence (or stupidity) of these perceptions kind of makes me wish I did. I was always an island of a teacher. Never would I attend union meetings or bother to inform myself of union goings-on. At staff meetings I would keep my mouth shut. Every day I would come to work, close my classroom door and teach. My students passed. My students learned. I worked hard to earn my living. Then I went home, usually to do more work before it was time to get to sleep. It was not until relatively recently that I was snapped out of this stupidly innocent way of life, and what a rude awakening it was.
At some point, the opportunity to be a chapter leader had presented itself to me. It was not because there was a groundswell of colleagues who supported me. Quite simply, nobody else wanted the position. I was a veteran teacher at this point. Up until then, I had been a dean, senior advisor, after school coordinator and countless other exhausting things that brought little reward. Chapter Leader was about the only thankless position I had not held down during my career, so why would I not take the job?
ACT II: CANNIBALS ALL!
There were other, more personal, reasons why I decided to become Chapter Leader. My upbringing had demonstrated that Chapter Leaders were nothing more than informants. No matter what else I did while holding down this position, I made a vow that I would not inform on any of my colleagues. It would be my way of compensating for the failures of my career mother. Things were really as simple as that in my mind. Unfortunately, being a Chapter Leader proved to be anything but simple. It would change me from a mere teacher to an assailed teacher, the very same assailed teacher you see before you right now.
I felt I could slide by without being a schoolhouse snitch. After all, I had decent relationships with everyone on the staff, including administrators. I was not known, nor have I ever been known, as a rabble-rouser. The goodwill I had built up over the years would allow me to be a positive bridge between teachers and administrators. Through cooperation, perhaps I could help the school attain heights it had never seen before. This is what all administrators wanted, just like my career father had taught me, and it was exciting for me to think that I could play a role in it.
Then the rubber roomings started. One of my closest friends and colleagues was slapped with charges that I would label as bogus. The next year, another one of my close friends and colleagues was rubber roomed for even more bogus charges. These events gave me a glimpse into a side of the system that I never knew existed. I often wonder how things would have turned out for me if I remained the isolated teacher I had been for most of my career. Instead, unbeknownst to me, my foray into union activism was just beginning.
The rubber roomings taught me that the system is ugly. There seemed to be an entire sector of the Department of Education whose purpose it was to rob teachers of their livelihoods. On the way to robbing them of their livelihoods, it also sought to rob them of their dignity, identity and sanity. It was not enough to merely fire a teacher. Many people get paid good money to ground good, hard-working teachers into dust. They do it with such a clear conscience, thinking no more about taking food off of someone’s table than they would swatting away a gnat.
All I could think of were those colleagues from my past who had tried to warn me of the evil in the system, the same teachers who I had written off as insane malcontents. If these people were such good teachers, I used to think, then why would the system want to get rid of them? “Children first… always”, are they not?
I could have kicked myself for such stupidity. All along I had been a cardigan-wearing company man. Here I was, a teacher who had taught students about Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil as a warning against merely going along with the flow, and I had been unable to take the beam out from my own eye. How many good teachers had I written off in my lifetime simply because it was convenient for me to do so?
This was only the beginning of my reeducation. Now that I was bearing witness to what the system was capable of doing, it was my job as the Chapter Leader to bring the full brunt of the United Federation of Teachers down on the evildoers. Finally, all of my years of paying union dues, all of those years of never burdening the union with my problems, all of those years of suffering through duplicitous Chapter Leaders without so much as uttering a peep was going to pay off. Ooh, did I relish the thought of serving some just desserts. Evildoers beware: I was going to dust off the UFT contract and use it as a bludgeon against anyone complicit in trying to destroy good, hard-working teachers; good hard-working union members.
It was time to make some phone calls. There were plenty of high-powered people down at 52 Broadway who would be shocked to hear about the injustices that were going on. My tone over the phone was “can you believe that? I know, it’s crazy, right?” The response I received was going to take the wind out of my sails forever. Every single person I spoke to at the UFT, all of these six-figure salaries, told me things in the tone of “well, yeah, the teacher really should not have done that” or “so what?” or “who the hell are you and why are you calling me?”
What I gleaned from my flurry of phone calls to the union was that their job, my job, was to ensure that this thing called “due process” was being followed. That means I would have to brush up on certain parts of the contract that I thought I would never need. All of the clauses from these sections start off strong with promising-sounding provisions like every teacher shall have this, be protected from that, shall not be subject to this and so forth. Then, in the very next breath, these clauses say if the DOE sees fit to do this, if investigators find that or if administrators do not want this. Literally, every single step in due process exists at the whim and privilege of the Department of Education. The loopholes were big enough for Mack trucks to penetrate, and the DOE was flying jets through them.
Even worse, when the teachers whose careers were on the line called the UFT themselves, they would get yelled at. If they were not getting yelled at, they were being ignored. If they were not being ignored, they were being told that their careers in the DOE were over and they should look for new jobs. This, apparently, was “due process” in action. It is a way to keep teachers quiet as they are shepherded out of the door.
How many teachers have been lulled into a false sense of protection by their union as they were told that their “due process” rights would be honored, only to be met with a termination ruling for the most trivial of charges? How many of these teachers have come to me at some point in my early career, way before I was a Chapter Leader, to try to warn me about how the system works? How many of these teachers did I write off as kooks, incompetents and loudmouths? I had been blind, stupidly blind, for many years. Perhaps there was something I could do to atone for my stupidity while also helping my friends who were in trouble.
The world needed to know about this. Despite the fact that I had not written anything worthwhile in years, I created a blog. As Francesco Portelos has said, sunlight would be the disinfectant for all of the filthy goings-on in the DOE and UFT. That would have them concerned. Maybe they would protect my friends’ due process rights a little better if they knew eyes were watching them.
ACT III: RENAISSANCE AND REFORMATION
So I started writing. Before I really got going, I did tons of reading. There were blogs from teachers, parents and other activists from all over the city. Many of them were discussing some of the same types of situations that were horrifying me in the DOE. Could it be that the destruction of so many teachers’ lives was a well-known secret? Could it be that I was the last one in the city to find out that the system has been set up to fail teachers, students, parents, taxpayers, everyone?
For most of my career I have been incredibly stupid.
The rest is pretty much history or, more accurately, recent history. The UFT, the DOE, they have been getting away with this because people have allowed them to do so. Through this blog I was able to fall in with the MORE Caucus and here we are today, ready to take on the UFT leadership next month in a battle for the soul of our union. In a few short years I went from being Mr. Teacher who thought of nothing but educating the students on my roster to Mr. Teacher and Mr. Union Activist.
After everything I have seen and all of the stories I have heard, I suppose I should not be surprised by anything anymore. Being involved in this current UFT election campaign, however, has turned me on to a whole new strata of wrongdoing by our union. Through research I learned that, while the Unity Caucus has won many of the protections teachers in NYC currently enjoy (enjoy?), they have also been furiously bargaining away those same protections. Despite this fact, and despite them being on the wrong side of issues like mayoral control, charter schools and Race to the Top, Unity will stop at nothing to maintain its stranglehold on power.
MORE does not have the funding or the infrastructure Unity has. What we have, however, is a core of motivated and intelligent teachers who have been pounding the pavement in order to build a true grass-roots movement. These teachers have been working feverishly to get the word out that not only should our colleagues vote MORE, but that an entity called MORE exists and that there are elections coming up in April in which MORE will be running.
And while the organizers at MORE have been using people power, the Unity folks have been using brute power. Thanks to the fact that the UFT’s District Reps are chosen instead of elected, most of them have proven to be firm allies of Unity. They have access to listservs containing the email addresses of hundreds of Chapter Leaders around the city and have been using this privileged access to campaign for their caucus. When members of MORE ask for equal time and equal opportunity to do the same thing, they have been denied. There have been stories, recent stories, of District Rep meetings where Unity Caucus literature has been distributed. All of these actions give the impression that the Unity Caucus is entitled to hold power. They have the listservs. They have the power to call district-wide meetings. They can organize major events like the upcoming Lobby Day. When they mix campaigning with these things the message is “we have the power and the influence, who else are you going to vote for?”
It does not stop with the UFT, however. The Unity Caucus has produced every single one of the American Federation of Labor’s Presidents: Albert Shanker, Sandy Feldman and Randi Weingarten. Randi herself has proven that she is not above throwing her weight around in defense of Unity. A few nights ago on Twitter Katie Osgood, a teacher in the Chicago Teachers’ Union, expressed her support for MORE. It was obvious that Ms. Katie was speaking for herself, since she clearly stated as much in her tweet. Randi Weingarten, taking a swipe from her national perch, questioned Ms. Katie (admonished her is more like it) for presuming to speak for the Chicago Teachers’ Union. This was Weingarten’s way of ensuring that Ms. Katie would clarify, once again, that she is speaking just for herself. It was a heavy-handed way for Weingarten to isolate the tweet as well as send the message to any other AFT member outside of New York City that any message in support of MORE will be monitored and the person duly chastened.
As for this lowly high school teacher, one who only speaks for himself on this blog, it is the worst of all possible worlds. My teaching career started with me thinking that my union is out to hang me and my administrators wanted to nurture me. It was an impression I learned during my upbringing as a young man whose career was born in the year 2000. Today, I now know that my union is not necessarily out to hang me. Instead, they would not mind if I were to hang. If it came down to a choice between them maintaining their stranglehold on power or me keeping my neck, they would opt for the former without even thinking.
The DOE, instead of nurturing me, probably would love an opportunity to fashion my noose. It was my misfortune for starting my career under a principal that gave me reason to have faith in the system. That faith sustained me for many years, over a decade, before I finally grew up. There is no such thing as “Children First… Always.” From the mayor on down to all of his little Tweedies, the only thing that comes first, second and last is themselves. Anyone who has no talent, no heart, no brains, no morals can find a well-paid job in the Department of Education. DOE lawyers, as I have been told by many personal friends who practice employment law, are notorious in the litigation community for being incompetent. The same could probably be said for many, if not most, if not all, of the so-called leadership positions at Tweed. What function do they serve aside from finding ways to hand tax money out to any company owned by a friend of Pharaoh Bloomberg in the form of no-bid contracts? Of course, in order to do this, they need to squeeze money out of existing areas of the system, namely veteran teachers who make “too much” money. They need to squeeze art, music and enrichment programs. They need to squeeze 40 children into a classroom. This is what “Children First” means to the likes of Bloomberg.
It has been a hard lesson to learn. It has been unnerving to think that I could have been so incredibly, mind-bogglingly, stupid for so long.
I once was lost but now I’m found.
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