What This Is…
Issue #60- April 29, 2012
In this issue: Recall News and More From My School
We are now about a week away from the May 8th primary and early voting has started. With all the uncertainty about Voter ID and other issues it is important that voters stay informed about what the current status of our voting rights are. It also means that voters must be prepared to make an informed decision about which candidate they will support. Next week's issue will focus on the candidates and their positions.
Of course this means that there is a little over a month before the June 5th recall election. Needless to say there will be a tremendous need for activists during that short window when we need to galvanize support for the candidates who oppose Walker and other elected GOP officials.
We can't forget that there are many reasons to support the effort to recall Walker that go beyond collective bargaining. Republicans would have us believe that the recall movement is being pushed solely to benefit "union bosses", but that is far from the truth.
News :: How Corporations Are Controlling Wisconsin Legislators :: The Shepherd Express: Milwaukee's.
Fixing Education and Fighting For Our Union- One School's Perspective…
To say that educators and other public sector workers have faced incredible challenges over the past year would be a significant understatement. The attacks on these groups have been well documented in this blog and in countless other places. However, one could make the argument that these assaults on the rights and professional status of educators are not unprecedented. Throughout history many groups in our society have seen themselves marginalized by the political and economic elite. The struggle to improve our society's acceptance and inclusion of different groups has been an ongoing battle. The efforts of workers to gain and maintain power in the workplace has played a large role in these conflicts.
What is different about this round of the struggle is the response of the groups that were attacked. It has been a long time since we've seen such significant resistance to a political agenda designed to cement the power of any single group. Many of the labor conflicts in our recent past have been isolated in nature. Individual industries, workplaces or groups have been involved, but labor in general hasn't mobilized in response to any of the challenges. With the unveiling of the GOP's plan to essentially eliminate all unions in Wisconsin (and other states as well) it would appear that Labor has finally gotten the message that the stakes have gone up and that worker's rights are facing a massive challenge.
Conservative leaders in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, etc. have raised the stakes and changed the rules of the conflict. In essence they accelerated the process of destroying unions that has been slowly going on for some time. Unions in the private sector have seen their membership and overall power decrease for the past 40+ years. Confident that the private sector was falling "in line" with the desires of business leaders, conservatives now felt able to turn their attention to the public sector. Rather than go about this in a gradual, piecemeal fashion, Walker and other GOP leaders chose to make a direct, all-out attack on public workers.
I'm sure that they were surprised by the massive response from such a wide range of groups and individuals. By attacking on so many fronts and in such a sweeping manner, the GOP created a broad based coalition to resist their agenda. Labor groups have been joined by groups representing many diverse interests, all united by their opposition to the wave of policy and legislation that threatens to completely shift the balance of power in Wisconsin (and other states) from the common citizen to a moneyed elite.
In addition to the scope of the resistance, the methods of resistance have also been unusual in many ways. There have been massive protests and even a few strikes, but on the whole the majority of the battles have been fought in the courtrooms and in the political spectrum. Ohio citizens rose up and soundly repealed SB 5. Wisconsin citizens have already recalled 2 state senators and now are gearing up for recall elections that involve 4 more senators, our Lt. Governor and of course Governor Walker. To date this has been a relatively peaceful revolt using existing methods of recourse.
Public workers in Wisconsin are continuing to do their jobs as usual, while at the same time helping to mount a resistance movement that is historical in scope. This, employee by day and activist by night approach creates a constant source of strain on those involved in fighting against the Walker "reforms". These workers find themselves working hard at their jobs while being told that their efforts are not valuable and that they are the cause of the state's problems.
Public educators are front and center in the efforts and are bearing the brunt of many direct attacks. Governor Walker and his supporters have made public educators one of their primary targets as they try to reshape the rules that govern workplaces in Wisconsin. These attacks have resulted in many different responses from educators. Some educators have become staunch advocates of public education and public educator unions. Others have given up and moved on to other jobs. A majority of educators have continued to struggle with the changes in their incomes and working conditions while looking for ways to slow the tide of "reform" that undermines morale and threatens their profession.
This ongoing struggle to maintain a positive attitude in the face of so many setbacks is challenging for educators. With all that has happened in the past year we are left wondering what else can be done to us or said about us. Last week I shared some of the opinions and concerns of the staff at my school. This week I will continue sharing their ideas about the struggle to save public education and to protect worker's rights.
Once again I remind you that these opinions are gathered from one school in an urban setting. I don't pretend to say that they represent all educators in Wisconsin's public schools. However, their opinions and ideas do give insight into what public educators are thinking. Their thoughts about how to fix the system and gain respect for educators are valuable as we look to find ways to truly make our schools work for all people.
What is morale like in our schools?
We hear a great deal about cuts to school budgets, increased demands on educators and other negative actions regarding public education. It's easy to imagine that educators in our schools are feeling the pressure and that it is affecting them in many ways. It's another thing to actually talk to them and hear directly from those most affected. The reactions to recent events are varied, but all carry an underlying thread of frustration, fear and uncertainty.
I begin this discussion by reminding readers that the educators in our public schools are human beings. We are not simply union members, a number in a budget or a target for conservative ire. While a standing joke among educators is that our students think we "live at school", we are fearful that the general public has chosen to ignore our humanity and focus only on the "bottom line" and the "costs" that our positions represent. We continually hear people say that they like and respect teachers, but… It is the words that follow the but that are the ones that tell their true opinion, and it is rarely a favorable or respectful one.
This personal side of educators leads to significant challenges as we try to reverse the damage done by the GOP to public education. In addition to their teaching duties which result in long hours and significant stress, educators have the same responsibilities and stressors that other professionals face. We have family responsibilities, health issues, and other obligations outside of our professional duties. Many of us are involved in furthering our own education or have taken on other duties like coaching, tutoring or mentoring children. The stress added by cuts to take-home pay has been considerable as we struggle to make ends meet, and this affects our morale.
A small number of educators have essentially given up any hope of reversing the recent trends of anti-educator/anti-education legislation and public sentiment. They express being "scared", "pessimistic", "powerless" and "hopeless". They see their union and their profession being dragged through the mud and wonder what, if anything can be done. With all the changes to the ability of their union to negotiate for them they ask "what's the purpose" of continuing to struggle.
Some educators have chosen to insulate themselves from the news of the day. They expressed the recognition of the fact that they were "in denial" of what has been happening and that they find the future of public education "impossible to imagine and scary". They throw their energy into their work and focus on surviving on a "day to day" basis. Often they are only getting a small piece of the big picture and state that they "don't make an effort to keep up with all that is going on".
Some educators have gotten involved and focused their concerns on the response to these attacks. They stay informed of events and take part in activities as they are able. While much of their passion comes from a feeling of desperation, they channel that energy into some form of response; letter writing, rallies, canvassing, phone calling, organizing, and more. These responses give them purpose and a sense of hope for the future.
Wherever the individual educator falls on the spectrum of responses they all share some similar concerns and sentiments. All the educators I talked to want to hold on to what we've earned over the years. They recognize the significant challenges that we face in today's environment and want to do what's right for their students, and for themselves. They want to believe that they can restore their professional rights, but find it "hard to see how it will work" and wonder "will all our efforts make a difference?"
No matter what their current emotional state, each educator expressed a willingness to defend their profession. Even those who were most distressed about the current state of public education felt a desire to fight back, but were often unsure exactly what could be done or felt "exhausted" and "overwhelmed".
We find ourselves "spread thin" and facing "opposition at home or in the community", yet at the same time willing to attempt to make a stand for public education.
With all the negative sentiment and feeling expressed, what keeps educators at my school going?
No matter where an educator falls on the political spectrum or their feelings about our union (MTI- Madison Teachers Incorporated) it becomes clear that there are some unifying points that we share. It was obvious after completing these interviews that the staff at my school was passionate and at the same time very thoughtful in their opinions about issues in public education. While we might not all agree on the means to use, we all share a strong commitment to some core values.
A strong dedication to public education and our students is the first major motivator. We feel like we provide a valuable service to our community and that we do our jobs well. We take pride in ourselves, each other and our school community. We feel that the attacks on educators, public education and public educator unions are extreme and unjustified. For many of us it is incomprehensible that anyone would propose the draconian cuts to education that the current GOP regime has implemented.
We have significant concerns about public education's future. Primary among these concerns is the discussion around our district's budget and staff allocations.
We wonder what will happen as the district works to find a new superintendent over the next year and what policies/procedures our new administrator will keep or change once they assume their role. We recognize that, as educators, we must be visible in many areas and get our ideas out in ways beyond the political spectrum. We must be proactive in addressing issues like the Achievement Gaps and should articulate our thoughts about how to "reform" education to meet all student's needs.
A second motivator is our connection to fellow educators. We draw strength from each other and are willing to fight for our fellow educators. Many of those I interviewed expressed that they are "depressed" and feel "isolated" when outside of school. However, in school or with peers their attitude and outlook changes and becomes more hopeful. While they may not find consistent support for their efforts outside of school, they know that they can rely on colleagues to help them deal with professional and political challenges.
These feelings of camaraderie show up in many ways. Staff members support each other in times of joy and times of sadness. We look out for each other and make an effort to celebrate important events in each other's lives. Individuals visiting my school have commented that they are impressed by the feeling of community that staff members demonstrate. We look out for each other and create a sense of "family" at school.
We keep an eye on the big picture. Along with our concerns about public education in our state and nation we also are committed to working towards achieving other social justice goals. With the nature of our jobs we see, first-hand, the struggles that many individuals and groups face in our society. The facts and figures that are discussed in other areas are real people to us. Over time we form connections with families and our community that make us painfully aware of the inequality and suffering that exists in our society. Addressing issues of race, poverty, gender and many others become central to our efforts as educators. It is impossible to simply teach a child and to ignore the other aspects of their lives that significantly impact the child's ability to learn on any given day.
We also feel a connection with the labor movement and the ongoing fight for worker's rights. The recent attacks on labor have united workers and awoken a new feeling of solidarity. Many staff members shared stories of how union membership helped their family improve their status in society. Several educators felt that they wouldn't have been able to get a college education if their parents hadn't received the benefits of a union job. We certainly recognize a need for unions and the widespread opinion among staff at my school is that all workers should have the right to collectively bargain.
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How would we "fix" public education?
Growing out of this sense of dedication to issues surrounding education and social justice comes a strong sense of what needs to be done to make public education better. Staff at my school is similar in many ways to staff across the MMSD, we are devoted, well educated and opinionated. We are open minded and willing to listen to new ideas, but aren't patient with things that we don't see as having significant merit.
In this section I have chosen to address ways to improve public education in more general terms. While several educators interviewed talked about specific concerns or solutions I feel it is more valuable to get a general sense of how we would "fix" the system. In my opinion, by utilizing these general concepts many of the specific issues that arise could be adequately addressed.
We take pride in our abilities and feel that our professional knowledge needs to be respected. This concept lies at the core of our dissatisfaction with education "reforms". It also provides us with strength, as we truly believe we are competent and deserve to be respected as knowledgeable professionals. Educators expressed a need to get "meaningful" recognition of our ideas and abilities. We feel that there is a great amount of "lip service" to the idea that educators are respected, but policies and procedures don't always demonstrate true respect for our knowledge and ability.
Educators in my building feel that there is a wealth of experience and knowledge in our school and in our district that, if tapped into, would produce excellent results in addressing the increasing gaps between students. The challenge is to find ways to share what works with colleagues in meaningful ways. We recognize the need for professional development to be organized and directed, but in many ways resent the "top-down" nature of our current system.
For elementary educators the loss of significant amounts of our Monday release time is a major concern and cause for frustration. Many educators feel that our district has displayed a lack of trust in our ability to utilize our time efficiently and instead would like to control how we use our contract time. We have lost significant amounts of time that we could use for collaboration and are spending our time listening to directives that often frustrate and confuse our efforts. That these feelings come from a building where significant efforts have been made to "personalize" our professional development make one wonder what buildings with more authoritarian administrators are feeling.
We resent "canned curriculum" that is formulaic and doesn't reflect our school's unique personality and needs. The idea that a "one size fits all" curriculum can be implemented and be widely successful is problematic for us. We enjoy hearing about new ideas, but frequently adapt them to our own classrooms and specific abilities.
We want a voice in how we educate our students. After spending all day for many days with a student educators in a building become very knowledgeable about that student's needs and abilities. We also have a clear picture of how our classroom functions and how each individual fits into the classroom or school community. No person from outside this community has the same view and, while additional expertise is welcomed, it must respectfully account for our perspective.
It is very important to staff at my school that administrators listen to us and work to develop ways to make collaborative decisions. "Communication and partnership" are keys to getting staff to "buy in to" new ideas and increase our commitment to change. We need to see the purpose behind changes and don't simply accept what is fed to us as being necessarily "best practice".
A collaborative atmosphere is important to us. Many educators interviewed felt a strong need for working together as a community. Few expressed a need for uniformity, but almost all expressed a desire to share ideas and issues with colleagues. To meet this need many felt that it would be good to reinstate "visitation days" for us to visit other schools and see what is working in different places. We felt that having the ability to choose where we would like to visit was important instead of allowing the district to pick schools that should be "models". There was also interest in having administrators from downtown get out into the schools on a regular basis. This way they could stay connected and see how policy decisions affect real students and educators.
This collaboration also extended to evaluating our performance. The idea of using tests or highly specific criteria was not widely accepted. Instead, educators voiced a desire to be evaluated, but these evaluations should be part of an ongoing dialogue designed to improve our teaching practices. With our staff's level of knowledge, ability and commitment a punitive and essentially scripted system of evaluation was viewed as counterproductive.
We view professional development in a similar fashion. Our PD shouldn't be scripted and uniform, but rather an exploration of topics at a pace that allows for individual educators to grow and develop skills at a pace appropriate to the needs of the educator and their classroom.
All educators are important parts of the process of educating students. Too often training is designed for classroom teachers and the abilities and influence of other educators are ignored or untapped. At the same time the ideas, skills and knowledge of non-teacher staff is also an underutilized resource.
This is one of the reasons why I interview all staff in my building and strongly believe that all voices need to be a part of the discussion.
Our support staff frequently spends more individual time with a student that the child's classroom teacher does. This is especially true for some of our most troubled or disabled students. At the same time these individuals are not given time to meet and confer with the teachers they work with. They are also rarely invited or involved in developing the lessons and goals (IEPs) for these students. We feel that this is an oversight that needs to be corrected and by including support staff in these conversations and meetings we would see student's needs addressed more effectively.
Support staff is also frequently excluded from training and staff development because their hours don't include the times that staff receives it. Only recently have hourly employees been given an opportunity to receive pay for attending meetings that other staff is compensated for. Considering that the support staff is often directly involved in implementing these new ideas and strategies it seems problematic (at the very least) that they don't receive adequate training, but instead must learn on the job.
Staff at my school has expressed strong support for all educators in our building. However, there are logistical issues that have continued to hamper our efforts to insure that all staff are treated like the professionals they are.
Time is a huge need. For educators time has truly become a 4 letter word. There is never enough for us to get our lessons planned, work corrected, and more importantly for us to collaborate with our colleagues. A strong need for "meaningful" time was expressed by the educators I interviewed. We need to be able to meet with all of our colleagues and work through issues involving curriculum, student needs and other issues.
Our allocated planning time is inadequate to meet our needs. While this is a difficult concept for those outside of education to conceptualize it is a true statement. Elementary education is a profession that is very different from many others. On the surface our schedules may look like they provide adequate time to plan, meet and complete necessary tasks, the reality is quite different. This fact combined with the reality that I may not have planning time with a colleague I need to meet with makes communicating in a meaningful way challenging for educators.
The result of the issues surrounding planning time mean that we are often communicating "on the fly" or otherwise trying to address issues in a less than ideal manner. This is especially true for our high need students who often receive services from a variety of adults throughout their school day. Because of scheduling conflicts it is virtually impossible to have a discussion involving the whole team that serves a specific child. One educational assistant said it well by stating, "Hours and training for support staff should include planning time with teachers. This would increase efficiency, productivity and also is a measure of respect for us."
We like data, but it needs to be meaningful. Most educators I talked to welcome evaluation and want to know if what they are doing works. However, the current methods of assessment and evaluation of students and educators doesn't meet our needs. There are many ways to gather information about student achievement, but our reliance on standardized testing is problematic. In reality it appears that by using standardized tests as the definitive measure of a students achievement we undermine and ignore the professional judgment and expertise of educators who work with the student on a daily basis.
We can't ignore the financial realities that educators face. While most educators would like to forget about these factors (and leave them to union staff to negotiate) the impact of our financial situation is huge. The simple reality is that as more and more vindictive financial policies are implemented by conservative leaders educators are faced with a growing distraction, their ability to make ends meet. We all know that financial issues are among the greatest stressors in modern day American life and educators are facing significant problems as draconian cuts to wages and benefits become a reality. It is unrealistic to assume that this won't affect an educator's performance in some way. Recent news has increased the stress level in schools even more.
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For hourly wage earners the reality is even more bleak. Their wages, already too low, face even more reductions and the potential increases in costs of benefits threaten to push some into bankruptcy or out of education. The "contributions" to retirement funds are at the same percentage for all staff and so lower wage employees face significant challenges to their financial survival.
Fixing public education is difficult, but we are going about it the wrong way. Putting all these thoughts together makes one thing very clear, the current methods for "reforming" education aren't going to work. Conservatives would have us believe that their pillars of accountability and choice will "fix" the system, but in reality it will simply destroy our public schools. Even more progressive minded "reformers" are missing the best ways to improve our schools. Taking what my staff shared and adding some additional ideas of mine gives us a few, fairly simple, ways to improve our public education system.
--Take what works and build on it. We have ways of collecting information and utilizing the knowledge gained that go beyond standardized testing. Data collected on a daily, ongoing basis can provide guidance for curriculum and help improve student achievement. This data should be used for instructional purposes and to help educators improve their practices, not as a weapon to eliminate funding or to punish individual educators.
--Listen to educators. We rely far too much on "experts" who aren't in classrooms. Instead of allowing these individuals to create policy, put them to work assisting educators working with real students. Allow educators a voice in creating educational policy.
--Educators need time. We need to be given an opportunity to meet and confer about students and also need time to process knowledge gained in professional development sessions. All educators need to be given time to work together to serve our students. Allowing educators to work together collaboratively can help strategies that really work gain widespread use in our schools.
--Compensate educators fairly and adequately fund public education. This war on educators has gone far enough. We are losing good people who want to work with students. With the current climate in Wisconsin it is difficult to see how we will attract a significant number of qualified young people to go into education. Our support staff member's needs should be addressed in reasonable ways. For example, why can't hourly employees have a salary schedule that allows them an opportunity and incentive to improve their skills and knowledge. We are among the most affluent nations in the world, why can't we pay for educating our children?
--We need community support to deal with some of the larger, societal issues like mental health needs, homelessness, poverty and issues around race. Schools alone can't address some of these needs adequately. Our communities also need to demonstrate they value education by allocating resources to support our schools. We also need to make sure that all members of the community are given a voice, but that no one group is allowed to monopolize power. Educators must also maintain control of what happens in a school.
--Our collective bargaining rights need to be restored. Educator's jobs are difficult enough without the added burden of trying to negotiate wages and benefits. Our unions have provided us with a sense of stability and security that have allowed us to educate students more effectively. Eliminating collective bargaining is a vindictive and unnecessary political effort to cement one party's hold on power.
Is there hope for our union?
Most of the employees that I interviewed belong to the local educator's union (MTI), however a few are represented by AFSCME and a smaller number are not union members, but are instead "fair share".
In general the support for our unions was widespread and strong. The events of the past year have cemented the importance of our collective strength in school employees. While there is fear about the future and uncertainty about what the union will be able to do to help us, the desire to preserve our union was a high priority for almost all members. What is more problematic for members are the best ways to preserve and protect an organization we value greatly. While it has always been challenging to cultivate active membership among educators, the current climate requires that unions develop a strong base in order to survive as an organization.
There were a number of themes that emerged from my discussions with educators.
Older, or more involved, members need to "educate" and motivate their peers. Several members expressed concern that people have forgotten, or never known, why unions are necessary and what it is like to work without the benefits and protections of a collective bargaining agreement. Without that first-hand knowledge and experience it is sometimes difficult to see the same level of need for unions that older workers experience. "History" lessons in the form of conversations, readings or movie nights are seen as valuable in the effort to demonstrate the value of our union. Mentorship, either formal or informal, provide another way to increase support for our union.
It is also challenging for some staff members to see the need to hold strong on some of the smaller issues. For example, making sure that we don't voluntarily give up planning time on a regular basis is important. By supporting and reminding each other of the importance of our planning time we can help insure that we hold on to the little that we have. However, individuals must feel a sense of solidarity and support from their peers in order to stand up for what they know to be right.
At the same time we must also work to build connections with staff who aren't involved, or who are not strong union supporters. Simply because one is a public educator doesn't guarantee a specific view on labor rights. However, our strength is in our numbers and we must work to build support in our school communities, but like we do in the community outside of school.
A personal connection is vital to building union support. Educators are, for the most part, very socially oriented people. We respond to friendly, direct communication with a personal touch. Like all people we like to know that our voice will be heard and our opinions are respected. These connections can be personal (face-to-face), team or group oriented, or may take on some other form. In some cases the connection may be formed because of a specific need, but in other cases simply knowing that someone "has your back" is important to an individual. However, the key is that each member feels connected to the union in some way.
This sense of community was expressed by many educators in these conversations. They recognized a need for solidarity as we move forward. This need is more significant because under our current legislation (Act 10) unions are forbidden to bargain in most areas. Therefore it will be actions by members that will influence decisions made about education and the larger the voice the larger the impact.
Communication is challenging in many ways. With all of the responsibilities that educators have and the volume of information we receive it is challenging to find ways to get information out in a usable and timely manner. Many members expressed feeling "bombarded" and that information was "ineffective due to volume". Members want information on specific topics and don't take the time to read longer pieces or general material. They feel like important information isn't always easy to find and is often hidden in all the "spamlike" material they receive. This has been even more difficult as we get closer to the recall and political correspondence increases.
In general educators at my school found that our current system of communication was reasonably effective. We've been using a single email a week sent out at a set time to share upcoming events, information about the week and specific concerns that are coming up. In addition staff appreciates other opportunities to get together and talk in "listening sessions" and similar scheduled formats. They also like the weekly "Solidarity" newsletter from MTI.
We have "tools" of our own to fight back with. While members are concerned about the weakening of our union's ability to represent us, they also see ways that we can make our voices heard. What makes many members uncomfortable is the recognition of the increased effort it will take on each individuals part. Surprisingly enough many educators are hesitant to get out and talk to others. We may feel confident teaching, but when it comes to sharing our views with the community many of us are fearful of the response we will receive. We also recognize the fact that we need to do this groundwork because we can't afford to make large donations to a political campaign that will do our work for us.
Most individuals I interviewed expressed a reluctance to participate, but also a willingness to learn and a recognition that if they don't participate now, it may be too late. They are looking for specific actions that they can take that will have an impact. They also expressed a strong desire to be involved in action, not planning. This demonstrates the beginning of a transition in models as our union moves from one where MTI staff did the planning and the work to one where union members become the ones who decide what to do and then do it.
In general members felt like we've been somewhat successful in getting our message out and should continue to work to educate the general population about what is happening to public education and other topics of concern. The strategy of using recalls and focusing on electoral actions is one that most members agree with. Members feel like we must become better "ambassadors for ourselves" and "use momentum" to achieve our goals. In the same way that union activists must reach out to colleagues to build support, members feel that making connections within our personal circles can help increase support for our cause.
Our message must be "coherent" and we must use the most potent messaging systems we can to reach the greatest number of people. This will help us "cultivate a positive image in the media". Advertising and letters to the editor are also "tools" available to us. Because educators have a wide range of communication skills we should be sure to utilize all of our collective talents. This includes sharing our voices in all venues and using facts and figures to get the truth out.
Specific actions that were suggested vary in intensity. Almost every staff member was comfortable wearing red on Monday (Red for Ed Day). A few more were interested in canvassing or phone banking. Data entry or other "behind the scenes" roles were even more popular. Others were willing to become more involved in organizing activities. A significant number expressed a willingness to "do whatever it takes" to continue the fight and make our "message clearly heard" by all.
It is that last sentence that provides the most hope for the future of public education and public educator unions. While we may be; demoralized, confused, stressed and frustrated, we are also proud, determined and angry. We believe in ourselves, our profession and our union and we will fight to insure that what we value is not destroyed. That strength of conviction combined with the power of solidarity will provide the underlying structure for the resistance to the radical conservative agenda that threatens the very core of our society.