Thursday, February 21, 2019

It's Not Easy to Stand Up---BUT...

 I remembers a Shakespeare teacher I had in college. He told us, "Once someone says but, you may ignore everything that preceded it." When your boyfriend or girlfriend says, "I really love you, but..." it's time to look for a new relationship.

We're at a turning point in the United States, and we can build one in New York City too. With Forest Hills High School making a little splash, we see a model. (They're in Queens Chronicle today, and I happen to know you'll be reading more about FH very shortly.) They're not the first to move with a vote of no confidence in a troublesome principal. CPE1 did the same last year. It's not easy to stand against principals. Principals have too much power, and can be vindictive on multiple levels.

At CPE1 this played out in different ways. The principal seemed totally paranoid of losing control, and as a result placed both the UFT chapter leader and a delegate under 3020a charges. It ought not to be an option for principals to bring people up on charges for the offense of doing their jobs as union reps. Nonetheless, the still-Bloomberg DOE policy is to let principals do Any Damn Thing They Please, no matter what. This, surprisingly, has not been questioned by allegedly progressive Bill de Blasio. It was ignored by Carmen Fariña, and the current chancellor hasn't lifted a finger to change it either.

Nonetheless, the entire CPE1 community stood with the besieged union members, regularly attended the chapter leader's hearings, and eventually both UFT members were restored as teachers. Typically, the principal was removed but not disciplined. Principals get the message that they can do whatever, disregard the staff and community, get slapped on the wrist, and go on to shuffle papers at Tweed or whatever it is they make them do.

A friend of mine said there were two problems in the UFT--the membership and the leadership. It's said in jest, but it's true. Janus, I believe, has been a wake up call for them. I know it's been one for me. I'm unusual, though, and I'm not glad or proud of it. I'm out here every day saying pretty much whatever I want. While that's not typical, I'd like it to be.

The Forest Hills teachers, I'm sure, would rather not be doing this. No teacher wants to spend time battling administration. Our jobs are already incredibly stressful and time-consuming. Plus, a lot of us have lives outside the classroom. We have families, interests, passions, hobbies, dreams and aspirations. We want those things not only for ourselves, but also for our students. That's one of the reasons many of us went into this.

Make no mistake, our option of having lives is under attack. It's no coincidence that charters are mostly non-union, or that working in them can be unsustainable for people who wish to have lives outside of work. The only thing that matters in some of these places is test scores and how to manipulate them. If that's not the central goal of your existence, you're unlikely to last.

Alas, when you're under assault, fighting back becomes not only a necessity for survival, but also a moral imperative. That's why the members at Forest Hills are speaking and acting right now. Yet in other places this isn't happening. It's certainly not happening in schools where harassment and abuse by administration is not a way of life. It's also not happening in some schools where it is.

I kind of understand. Knowing that the principal is a vindictive lunatic, there's a lot of personal risk in being the first to take a stand. Once, years ago, I told Michael Winerip, then-NY Times education columnist, that I had two students in my beginning ESL classes who were fluent in English but illiterate. The students were misplaced and the school was doing nothing to address their core issue. Winerip asked me if I was tenured, and I told him I was.

Winerip didn't even write about me, but merely sent quotes from me in a fax to the DOE. My then-principal was apoplectic, and told me in great detail how ungrateful I was. I wasn't exactly sure what I was ungrateful for, as this principal had never reached out to help me at all, ever. It didn't matter, though. The principal started calling me into his office, usually at the end of the day, and making me wait so he could tell me how awful I was, and how the appropriate people had covered their asses. (The fact that no one had reached out to help either of these kids was never mentioned. Both helpfully dropped out of school shortly thereafter, resolving the problem.)

This went on for a while, until he denied me new textbooks I needed for my class. I found that the contract said he needed to provide them  The principal not only stopped bothering me, but also bought us books me when I threatened a grievance. Now that was a pain in the ass, but in the scheme of things was relatively nothing. I know many  people who've been through way worse. Not the least of them is the chapter leader of Forest Hills, who evidently gets letters in his file for the egregious offense of being chapter leader of Forest Hills.

This chapter leader, though, has the support of his community, who voted overwhelmingly that they had no confidence in the principal. By ourselves, we are just that--by ourselves. Union means we stand together and support one another. It sucks being the first to stand up, and a whole lot of people don't want to do it. I don't blame them.

Janus is an attempt to destroy union and leave us standing all alone. No one who brought the suit gives a crap how much money we make, and they'd be more than delighted to have us work for minimum wage as at-will employees. If you believe the people who come to your house saying they want to give you a raise, well, you are a fool, a dupe. It's changed leadership and it's changed me. It needs to change all of us.

If we can collectively wake up we can turn a negative into a positive. This is not an easy jump to make, and it won't happen overnight. But it's one of the things I'm going to encourage this year, both publicly and privately. We are stronger than we know. It's time we started not only knowing it, but also acting on it.
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