Last school year was a particularly taxing year, for a number of reasons, both professionally and otherwise. It left me wiped out and completely fried by the time we reached the last day of school. So I took the first two weeks of my summer to pretty much disconnect from the education world. No blog reading, public ed tweeting, or conversations with Beth Dimino. Outside of fishing with a couple of my PJSTA brothers, I was totally disconnected from my normal work, which is very rare for me.
Two weeks ago, however, I had lunch (Korean BBQ for those of you wondering) with a couple of my friends from MORE, Jia Lee and Mike Schirtzer and it helped to re-energize my passion for the organizing work that we do. Part of the overwhelming feelings that I had at the end of the school year dealt with the feelings that there were battles being waged on so many different fronts and it can become really exhausting. There are the opt-out battles, the battles for democracy within NYSUT, the work to try and build STCaucus into a more member centered caucus, the importance of the November elections on both a state and national level, the work that came with being a member of the PJSTA negotiating team that settled our contract in June, along with the many other issues that we deal with.
So upon arriving at lunch with Jia and Mike, I declared to them that I had given very little thought to public ed and unions over the previous two weeks. Fortunately they are two of the more remarkable unionists and teachers that I know and spending a few hours with them helped to center me and give me an idea of what direction to head in from there. That has become more clear to me in the time since our meeting as I have had time to contemplate some ideas and as I watched the AFT Convention in Minnesota unfold from afar (for a few good reports on that convention check out Norm Scott’s blog over at Ed Notes, along with the other blogs he links to). What I am speaking of is the idea of elevating teacher voice. Giving a louder voice to the actual teachers working in the classrooms.
This entire concept is a very important one for me. One of the largest problems that we have faced in recent years has been the lack of teacher voice when it comes to the decisions that shape our public school system. That shouldn’t be any secret to readers of this blog. While we have made some strides in the pushback against ed deform in recent years, I am not so sure we have made much, if any, progress in terms of raising teacher voice. We have some tremendous allies who have done incredible work alongside us in bettering public education. Still, when it comes to the issues that impact our students and teachers most, the voices that we typically hear from are not those of the teachers who are in the classroom every day. We hear from elected officials, parents, union leaders, authors, caucuses, coalitions, and groups, all of whom have contributed immensely to some real progress over the past few years. But rarely, if ever, do we hear from actual classroom teachers. On the rare occasion it is a teacher who we hear from, it is often because they are first identified as the head of one of the aforementioned groups. There are some very real reasons for this, of course. But ultimately, as long as teachers allow themselves to be regularly pushed to the sidelines when the issues that impact them so greatly are discussed, we, along with the students we serve, will continue to be at the mercy of others.
As I begin to wrap my head around the idea of the 2016-2017 school year, I do so with the question in mind of how do we raise teacher voice across New York State and beyond? How do we empower our members at the very grassroots level? How do we better engage our membership at the local, state, and national levels in a way that allows the members to drive the union agendas? How do we create union cultures that encourage membership participation and what exactly does that participation look like? How do we create times and places to facilitate discussions among the rank and file about what our unions are vs. what they actually should be? How do we build more democratic unions and how do we overcome the obstacles that stand in the path of union democracy? How do we turn our unions from passive unions or unions who simply mobilize around top down mandates into unions who have rank and file organizing at the very heart of their operation?
I’ll be using this blog throughout the remainder of the summer to explore some of these ideas and more. Additionally there will be a few new ideas to present to you before the start of the school year that I believe will help to raise teacher voice. I strongly encourage you, whether you are a member of the PJSTA or any other local for that matter, to use the comment section below to share your feelings on the questions posed above. I honestly have no idea what the best answers to those questions are (though I have plenty of ideas, lol), so I welcome the thoughts of others. You can also reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Sashammy on Twitter.