Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How Mrs. Flowers Helped Maya Angelou Find Her Voice

I was reminded on the drive home that Maya Angelou, who died today, was partially the product of a wonderful teacher. Angelou spent much of her childhood as a mute after being experiencing a rape. Mrs. Flowers was the person who mentored her from about age eight. Mrs. Flowers gave her access to books, including poetry, and brought Angelou to her house to help her read and to eventually communicate.

Here's how Angelou describes first coming in contact with Sister Flowers in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”:
“...Momma said, "Sister Flowers, I'll send Bailey up to your house with these things.”  She smiled that slow dragging smile, “Thank you, Mrs. Henderson. I'd prefer Marguerite, though.”  My name was beautiful when she said it. “I've been meaning to talk to her, anyway...” 

 I had never heard her tell the story of how Mrs. Flowers actually inspired her to speak (I had read it. But reading Angelou tell a story and hearing her tell it are two completely different experiences).  This was taken from a 1986 interview that was on Fresh Air today:

"... And when I was about eleven and a half, she said to me one day "Do you love poetry?' so I wrote [on a tablet] "Yes". It was a silly question for Mrs. Flowers, since she knew I just.... So she told me "You do not love poetry. You will never love it until you speak it... until it comes across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips. You will never love poetry....And I ran out of her house. I thought 'I'll never go back there again'. She was trying to take my friend [her silence]...she came to the store and she would catch me and say 'You do not love poetry. Not until you speak it .... And finally, I did take a book of poetry and I went under the house and tried to speak [for the first time in years] and could ... 

My six year old daughter walked into the house with her mother today writing a poem. Apparently, her teacher had mentioned the poet's passing in school today (this is odd since there is no poetry in her current Common Core unit, but I suppose she has a good teacher). She was, in fact, so engulfed with her poem that she refused to come to the table for homework until she had completed the two lines she had been writing.  "I think I want to be like Maya Angeloooooh when I grow up" she said, as she finally raced off to the table to start her non fiction writing about "predators" and "temperate deciduous forests" (true story).

As for me, I'd like to be like Mrs. Flowers. I'd like to inspire the next poet, the next writer, the next famous politician to come out of his or shell and follow a path to stardom and greatness. I think my life would be complete if that were to happen. And when my work's all done, I think I'd like to sit back, watch it all unfold, and be proud of my student -and of the difference that I helped make.

So on the day of Maya Angelou's passing, I thought a quick shout-out to the teacher who helped her get there, Mrs. Flowers, was in order.

Monday, May 26, 2014

"Vote Yes! (Act III; 'Growing Pains')

Act I; 'Rage'
Act II; 'Mulgrew's Minions'
Act III; Growing Pains

In my last post, I spoke about the poor organization of the "Vote Yes" campaign thrown together by union leadership a full two weeks after the contract announcement. In this one, I'd like to focus on the extent to which the 'Vote Yes!' folks are willing to go to get this thing passed and how that has affected all members of the UFT. 

I left off discussing the Twitter newbies -Twitter users who had suddenly created, or renewed a Twitter account, had earned less than 10 followers and were tweeting to anyone and everyone they could to urge them to vote yes. These accounts, and the talking points they do in fact have (I mistakenly asserted they had none) have been effective to the extent of upsetting one of the most, if not the most, highly regarded teachers/writers in the city,  NYCEduator. In a coment on my last post he shared:

"...Twitter newbies and blog visitors [those who leave comments]. [']Everyone should just read the MOA['], they'd say, though neither the Contract Committee nor the Exec. Board did, and it's unlikely most teachers would bother...."

A closer look at these Twitter newbies reveals that many began tweeting away with conviction around the same time: May 15. One of the accounts was created on exactly May 15. The person sent his first tweet on the same day (at around 7 that night).  Another had sent just six tweets since January before tweeting an average 15 times a day since that same date: May 15.  The UFT Rep from District 31 is another. He began urging his followers to vote yes on, you guessed it, May 15! Another (one who at least attempts to engage people in reasonable discourse), began tweeting in favor of the proposal just two days later. (I guess some folks don't get the memo at the same time).

In addition, the folks I examined all seemed to come from the same South Brooklyn/Staten Island area. At least two of these new tweeps come from the same district and others come from nearby south Brooklyn. At this point, I would venture to say that someone within UFT leadership held a meeting, or perhaps blasted out an email, suggesting that 'friends of the contract' get out into social media and start tweeting away. I have no indictment to make toward that end save this: These tweeps and blog visitors are part of a larger 'Vote Yes' campaign that is being planned and enacted. (I'd also like to note that many of the people who are in social media opposed to the contract are doing so as out of anger. Those who tweeting in favor of it are doing so as out of tactic -tactic sent from the top down.)

If these folks knew that most people aren't listening (mainly because they have too few followers to hear them), they probably wouldn't be upset. The point of their tweets (and blog comments) are simply to push back against a 'vote no' sentiment to get folks not to vote no. Providing just enough smoke and mirrors in the Blogosphere and Twitterverse may well be what the doctor ordered to secure their win.

There are other awkward examples of a leadership desperate to push back against an anti-contract, thus anti leadership sentiment.  That Op-Ed Mulgrew wrote for Schoolbook talking up the contract is one of them. He had never written anything for Schoolbook before. I'd venture to say he probably never will again. But his decision to write it came just a day after Julie Cavanaugh published an op Op-Ed on the very same site. Her piece, which asserted the contract's shortcomings, made a lot of good, valid points about why the contract wasn't the best deal we could have gotten. Mulgrew's instinct, to be published on the same site reveals a concern that wasn't evident before: He is playing defense. He doesn't want the MORE caucus to make any more inroads into the union than it already has. Given that priority, checking Cavanaugh on Schoolbook was an absolute must.

'Town Hall' Meeting by Mulgrew
Then there was the 'Town Hall Meeting' hosted by president Mulgrew and livestreamed over the internet. Mulgrew appeared in a video studio (I had no idea my union dues paid for video broadcast video studio) and answered pre-selected questions from pre-selected members. The bizarre backdrop, which made him appear as if he were Obama answering questions from 'concerned citizens', was made almost complete in its awkwardness by the display of a stool and an untouched bottle of water in the background.  Why do a town hall? Because he knew the UFT would need it's biggest salesman -him- to sell the points of the contract.

And man, that contract needed to be sold!! If you ask yourself why the union would need its best salesman to sell something, the only answer you may come up with is that it isn't selling itself, You also might come to see that the others below him weren't getting the job done.

The following that each of these instances had must also be mentioned. Although the new Twitter accounts had less than 10 followers, it didn't stop the popular UFT Twitter account from Re-tweeting them, thus giving them to facade of legitimacy.  Mulgrew's post on Schoolbook at first showed very few instances of sharing across social media (Julie's had many more after the same amount of time). 

Then, after it became evident that Julie's piece was actually more popular, the Mulgrew piece seemed to take off. Three days after it appeared, Mulgrew's piece showed it had been 'liked' just 600 times on Facebook. Yet Four days after it was published, just one day later, it had been like "2.3k" times. It has stayed there ever since, not rising more than 2,300 'likes' on Facebook (it hasn't been 'liked' once since then). A piece like his typically has a shelf life of about 2 days before it loses hit counts. That it had 600 'likes' on the first three days combined, then miraculously garnered 1,700 more 'likes' on the fourth alone (and has garnered none since), tells me someone worked overtime to make sure the Mulgrew piece didn't wind up embarrassing our union president. Emails must have been sent. Tweets sent, texts and phone calls made. That's part of the social media game and I know it all too well. But that it had to played around that piece in order to avoid egg-on-the-face-itus really is saying something. 
The 3,279 views this video had
is a far sight better than the 300 it had
before the UFT's Twitter page started promoting it!

So too is his broadcast a bit circumspect. Youtube recorded his Town Hall Meeting has having all of 300 hits by Tuesday evening (I think I get more than that from a single Tweet). This was the same result on Wednesday morning when I was on my way into work. Yet on Wednesday afternoon, at 2:34 when I was on my way home, that number had miraculously risen to 1,200. It has since risen to 3,279 views (just 25 likes). You can draw two conclusions from that: that thousands of teachers watched him speak while they were at work on Wednesday. or 2) someone was supporting that URL. That someone, as it turns out, is the UFT Twitter page. It has 'pinned' Mulgrew's video-a-thon to its Twitter page so that every person who visits it sees the video first (side note to the media team over there at 52B-way: Nice touch! I'm so going to make sure MORE uses that trick moving forward!!)

It's not that leadership seems to have actively supported it's social media pieces in favor of the contract that is worth mentioning.  Sure, this is one caucus of the union using the power of the entire union to push out it's own message. Yes, it does border on a black hat trick (if Obama had used the White House phones to make calls for campaign pledges, it'd be illegal).  What's worth mentioning is that these (almost) black hat methods seem to be consistent with an entire organization that has made it it's mission to push back against a vote no sentiment of an unpopular contract.

Not all leadership actions that reflect concern about convincing people to vote yes are bad. I have recently been added to UFT VP Janella Hinds' email list. Ms. Hinds is the VP for high schools and, although I have been signed up for UFT updates since before Ms. Hids was the VP, I had never received her updates before. She has suddenly (and without any warning) decided that I (and several dozen of my friends) are now worthy to receive her email newsletter "Team High School".   That's right, as leadership has become embroiled with convincing people to vote for the contract, the UFT VP of high schools seems to have (finally?) updated her email list to include such people as me. 

I could come away from an experience like that with a feeling of resentment (in fact, I was upset at first). But the truth of the matter is that if a crappy contract proposal, and concern over it getting voted down, is what it takes to get a VP of my union to get in touch with me (and those like me) then that's a victory all by itself. That act alone -updating an email list so that more members are in touch with their union- represents a wild victory for the movement of rank and file educators -and I'm not talking about the union caucus; the Movement of Rank and File Educators. I'm talking about regular teachers who need to be in greater touch with their union. A union's strength comes from its numbers. Whoever updated Ms. Hinds' (and I presume other VPs in charge of primary schools, middle schools and the like) email list may have done so with a zeal to get the contract passed, but that person wound up strengthening our union.  

These observations and experiences seem to all add up. While many feel the contract will ultimately be ratified, the leadership of the union has gone through all types of contortions over the past few weeks -contortions that, frankly, I've never seen them go through before. Sure, they have exposed their weaknesses to their adversaries,  and they have stooped to some lows. But they have also reached for heights that they haven't reached for in a long time. MORE has made incredible inroads throughout this period. They've increased their outreach to members during May and they have increased their public profile as well. But in a larger sense, and perhaps most importantly, they seem to have pushed the leadership into a moment of clarity where it has come to realize the importance of connecting with actual union members over a given topic. Given the great strides made by MORE and the obvious growing pains of Unity, I have little doubt that this episode will result in a stronger union. That's right,just as the two minority caucus' have come out stronger, so too has my own leadership, (who, mind you doesn't even want me to be part of their union) has been made stronger by their need to connect with their members over this contract. And isn't that something.

Fellow blogger AccountableTalk writes that he expects this vote to be a landslide in favor of the contract (here). A/T is usually spot on with his predictions, so I'll prepare for a landslide. But if it happens, it won't be because this membership liked it or its union leader. It'll be because of the mammoth, pull-out-all-the-stops (and yet inchoate) 'Vote Yes' campaign put on by leadership. 

The only question left unanswered is where does it go from here? What does leadership do with its newfound abilities in social media and its new and improved email lists? Will I receive more emails from Janella Hinds about PD opportunities or union related business? Or will I never hear from her again? Will I be able to engage these tweeps in an academic discussion about pedagogy or about unionism? Or will they zombify (the term we use to describe a social media account that is no longer being used)? Does this union -finally- turn into the organization of professionals that it claims to be? Or must it continue to be forced into that position from the outside? Only time will tell.

Ed (who is so totally, unbelievably, unabashedly against this mistake of a contract he actually feels sorry for anyone with self esteem low enough to who vote for it!!!! (Sorry. Just had to say it once)).

Check out Act I ('Rage') and Act II ('Mulgrew's Minions')

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Vote Yes!" (Act II; 'Mulgrew's Minions')

Act I; 'Rage'
Act II; 'Mulgrew's Minions'
Act III; Growing Pains

In my last post, I wrote about Mulgrew's concerns about the out-and-out anger over the new proposed contract. In this one, I'll focus on the army of union reps that the UFT sent out to convince people that they should vote yes.

I should start by saying there is an entire vote yes apparatus out there. This wasn't the case with the last contract, but it is now. I've been part of campaigns before and I know what one feels like. This is nothing short of a city-wide campaign intent on getting teachers to do one thing: Vote Yes on an contract proposal that is unpopular among members.  It starts with Mulgrew, goes down to the VPs and staffers at the UFT HQ level, then straight to the borough offices and into any school where staff that are part of (or would like to be part of) the Unity caucus. Finally, it ends in every school in the city. It has spread into social media, into teachers' email boxes and has made its way into staff lounges of schools who both strongly support and strongly oppose the proposal. Needless to say; it's a pretty big campaign.

Part of the 'Vote Yes' apparatus is within the Unity caucus itself. Their May newsletter, which was leaked by a Unity member upset about the contract, looked more like a "Vote Yes" flier than a monthly news bulletin for caucus members. While on one level, you might see it as a caucus celebrating an achievement of its goals, it's kind of hard to ignore things like the pay scale and the great big headline urging caucus members to 'Vote YES!'. To urge UFT members to vote yes is one thing. But if you have to urge members of your own caucus to vote for the contract you just negotiated, something's a tad out of place. This flier isn't an example of rallying the troops. It's an example of rallying the faithful troops -the ones who's loyalty you should expect anyway and under almost any circumstance. Think about that for a moment and ask yourself why any army would need to rally it's most loyal soldiers. I come away with the feeling that the cause to which they are being rallied (this proposed contract) must not exactly be selling itself.

Newsletter aside, it was surprising to see the rest of that apparatus take so much time to get its act together. As early as three days after the May 1 press conference, I learned that District Representatives (those people who deal with your chapter leader and are supposed to be an expert on details) were misquoting the amount of the salary increase we are to expect in September (reps from two different boroughs said 10% in September. It's actually 2%).  At first I thought they were liars. I quickly came to realize that they just hadn't been brought up on all of the facts -they didn't know any better!

Apparently, no one had sat them down and made them informed about the details of the contract. No one had told him how important it was to be able to answer questions, or to get out into schools and start selling it to voting members. I am still amazed that union leadership, in the face of such widespread disappointment, did not consider it important enough to tap into their representative corps sooner.

All in all, the representatives didn't get the basics straight and organize visits to schools for a full two weeks after the announcement.  In any campaign, large or small, two weeks is an absolute lifetime. If MORE were just a bit bigger, or if another large group existed who opposed the contract, the Unity leadership would have lost their 'Vote Yes' campaign for that reason alone.

This lack of organization isn't just skin deep. It now seems painfully obvious that the Borough Reps, District Reps and Special Reps of the entire UFT have been simply left out of the loop. I had the opportunity to distribute MORE leaflets during the May 7 DA. Being the smart alack I am, I chose to 'leaflet' the coffee lounge where many members of the leadership gathered before the meeting. Of all the people who I explained details of the contract to, the DRs were the ones who were most open to hear them. Not one detail I shared was contested. At one point, I had four of them surrounding me, listening intently, and one actually pulled me aside to ask a few clarifying questions when I was done (to be clear, they were masked as criticisms, but the questions very clearly sought to clarify the person's understanding).

Weeks later, when my school received a visit from a Special Representative, I was stunned to see him open a copy of the NYC Teacher (the UFT member only newspaper) to search for details to answer member's question about the deal. I've heard similar stories about DRs visiting many schools over the past three weeks. All of them reveal a corps of UFT representatives that have simply not been brought up on all of the facts about the contract proposal and cannot provide many details at all.

These aren't stupid people. Representatives come from highly respected colleges. They are super intelligent, many of them super nice and still many more are super supportive professionals. For the vast majority of elected staff members (chapter leaders and delegates) the District Reps, Special Reps and Borough Reps are their only connection the UFT. In short, they are smart, savvy and have an unbelievably important role in how this union operates. Yet they were kept out of the loop almost completely and, quite frankly, placed in a positions that made them look like car salesman who didn't quite know their car (which, in my opinion, doesn't place them in the light they deserve for all the work they do).

It is a strange twist, that the opposition caucus has come to have a better command of the facts, as well as the details and the possible implications, of the contract than this plethora of union officials. This is consistent across the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens and it is a bizarre circumstance to observe -and a very strange observation to have to share. But it is a fact that has become a part of this 'Vote Yes' campaign.

This  rushed 'vote yes' flier found its way into schools with
a strong 'Vote No' sentiment
Lately, their strategy for connecting with members seems to be focussed on schools that are leaning toward no vote. While they seemed to have 'hit' every school in the city, they seem intent on making sure they visit every MORE stronghold in the city more than once. At one school, when the chapter leader told the DR they were voting no, the DR all but insisted on going -and she brought the Borough Rep along with her (the Borough Rep knew little more than the District Rep)! In at least two others, a Special Rep simply entered, without ever asking the chapter leader's permission, to leaflet mailboxes (something that is considered a 'no-no'). When the chapter leader caught him, he acted as though he were the CL's supervisor and leafletted mailboxes anyway. This flier (featured to the left) was done in such a rushed manner that, had one of my students completed it for class, I would not have issued a passing grade. Yet there it was, in professionals' mailboxes last Friday. (Side note about that last line: If you ask a member of MORE if they have a reasonable plan, they'll say their plan is called 'The Contract NYC Educators Deserve" and will ask you read about it here).

On this level, the intent doesn't seem to be to convince people to vote for the contract. Rather, it seems to be an attempt to make sure that anti-union (or anti-Unity) sentiment doesn't take root in schools. School cultures are tricky and rank and file union members are trickier still. Schools, which we call union chapters, fall into one of three broad categories. There are chapters that are not 'active', chapters that are active and are sympathetic toward union leadership, and chapters that are active and are critical of union leadership. The energies of the representative corps as of late last week seem to be devoted to making sure the latter category of chapters don't grow as a result of this contract.

Vote Yes avatars on Facebook and Twitter to combat
the 'Vote No' badges
School mailboxes aren't the only place where leadership is pushing back against a vote no sentiment. New Twitter users have popped up out of no where urging teachers to vote yes. They come with a great little 'vote yes' avatar yet many have less than ten followers and accounts that are less than one month old. (They also don't seem to know their way around social media all too well). While some of these users are Unity members, many are not. The Unity Caucus has a rather long line of teachers  hoping to be invited in. I have first hand knowledge of least one 'new' Twitter user who falls into this category. He is the chapter leader from a highly regarded high school in Brooklyn. He is not a member of the Unity caucus but would like to be. And there he is in all of his Tweep glory urging his five followers (three of whom are from the MORE Caucus) to vote yes for the contract. This is a good person who believes in the contract and has been urged to get out into social media and push back against the vote no sentiment.

These are Mulgrew's Minions. Party leaders who feel the need to rally their own party faithful. Wonderful, intelligent representatives who seem as though they have simply been left out of the loop and are made to look like flippin' car salesmen/women (which, again, they are not). And a structure that is concerned enough about anti leadership sentiment taking root in their union to push back where they can: with a few new Twitter users and fliers that were quickly put together the night before.  They're not all on the same page, don't all speak to the same bullet points and, clearly, weren't all issued the same walking papers. Just beneath the surface, they look like a rag-tag bunch who have had the whip put to them and aren't quite sure how to present an organized front. If I ran my classroom the way the 'Vote Yes' effort has been organized,  I'd be rated Ineffective.

If these are his minions, it is little no wonder why the man was wound up so tight at the May 5 meeting of the Executive Board.

And about that whip! Tomorrow, I'll get into how the UFT senior staff has supported the 'Vote Yes' campaign. While it involves a presidential town hall meeting (naaa, not Obama!)  and some examples of  black hat (SEO) moves, it also involves an UFT VP who may have actually strengthened the union (if even by accident) as a part of the attempt to get members to vote yes. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"Vote Yes!" (Act I: 'Rage!')

Act I; 'Rage'
Act II; 'Mulgrew's Minions'
Act III; Growing Pains

This is the first of three posts about the process of convincing members to vote for the new proposed UFT contract. All three are based on observations I've made of some of the key players involved. I'll post the second tomorrow and the third on Monday. 

This professionally designed 'Vote Yes'
avatar has suddenly surfaced
 throughout the Twittersphere
If you would have seen the swagger of UFT President Michael Mulgrew at the May 5 Executive Board meeting, you might have concluded that no sane New York City teacher could have possibly been disappointed with the proposed contract he had suggested to members just days earlier. It was as if all of the anger that was felt and expressed by teachers since the May 1 announcement at City Hall simply didn't exist. It couldn't have! How could it with a demeanor was so confident and a tone so self-assured as his. If you didn't like the contract, and you saw him speak to the UFT EB that night,  you might have come away with the feeling that you were the only one on Earth.

"Did you see any weakness there at all?" one leading member of the MORE caucus asked me just after the meeting had ended. "Because I didn't" he said.

"Nothing" I replied and shook my head with confidence. "No weakness there at all".

"Me either."

Yet, there were signs of fragility surrounding Mulgrew that sort of stuck out. When I, as a non-member of the Executive Board, asked a question, and deliberately skipped a few formalities  (something I often do to as a way to gauge the general temperament of the person with whom I am speaking) he flew off the handle with a verbal reprimand that lasted several minutes. "Now wait, wait..." he began. "I'm trying to be flexible here" he said with his arms stretched out like a Osprey getting ready to flap. "I'm trying my best to be flexible ... I'm trying ... but this", he said, "is an Executive Board meeting .." (the last part was stated so loud that a guy across the street might have been able to hear him). When he realized his tongue lashing was being greeted by me with a smile (something else I do just to get under a person's skin), it seemed to upset him all the more. Later in the meeting, when someone told him a person was "...recording my voice!?!..." he seemed to almost lose it again. All in all, the episodes were typical of a union gathering that takes place around both people you know and trust and people you don't (you'd have to be a union man to truly understand a dynamic like that) but something about the president was extremely unsettled that evening. A closer look at his swagger led me to come away with the feeling that he had all the allure of a guy who was wound up just a bit too tight and sitting far too close to the edge for his own comfort. Certainly this was not a guy taking a victory lap. Sure he wanted folks to believe that. But his edginess and hyper-defensiveness revealed a guy who was far more concerned than he was happy. 

In the weeks since that meeting, I have come to realize that teachers all across the city are angry over this contract. Throughout May, I've spoken with people from no less than twelve schools, many of them brand new to unionism, who have expressed that emotion -all in different ways and some with words so colorful that I could never share them in public. When I delivered the details of the proposal to a group of teachers at one mid-week happy hour event that was organized by MORE, the union's new caucus, the (very excellent) organizer said he was expecting less than ten people. Closer to forty showed up -all of them angry before I even began- and that wasn't even the largest event that that union caucus sponsored in May. 

From my somewhat distant perspective, it seems that new teachers and chapter leaders are making contact with the caucus through social media (or in person) than ever have before. If growing MORe had been the goal of the caucus (which is was NOT), then this contract proposal would represent a real boom for it. In addition to that, Facebook pages urging teachers to 'Vote No' have popped up all across the social media (one page had 1,000 likes in three days) and none of those are from MORE at all. The sheer breadth and depth of that anger (expressed by people who are typically very apathetic toward their union) has taken me and a great many others by complete surprise. What's more is the anger has not dissipated all that much since the deal was announced. That anger is most evident in social media. The edu bloggers I communicate with inform me that every blog post about the contract is resulting in thousands of hits. One post, revealing only details about the contract (nothing more), generated so many hits (and likes on one 'Vote No' Facebook page) that even the seasoned blogger who published it was taken aback. 

The process of getting to a
yes vote has been divisive 

Mulgrew had good reason to be concerned that night! Leadership must have known they'd have to pull out all the stops -scare tactics, smoke and mirrors and even a few underhanded stunts- to convince the membership to vote yes to a contract with which many would be less than pleased. They must have realized, as I have since come to understand, that the road to a 'yes vote' would be a bumpy one -one that further pulled the union apart. They must have sensed that some Unity people would defect (I count three public defections since May 1) and that the NA and MORE caucus' would emerge stronger than they were before. 

The president must have known these things on May 5 and not liked what was in store. In the weeks since, he's done things that he'd never done before. He's had posts published on sites where only teachers read. He's sent ill prepared representatives out to every school in the city (something they didn't even do during the previous election) and he's hosted his first ever 'Town Hall' meeting that was as awkward as anything I can remember seeing from my union. The organization beneath him has acted as an animal responding to the whip. Some have cheated. Some have risen to the occasion and actually strengthened their little corner of the UFT and many have just gotten by doing just enough to avoid being fired. The only conclusion worth reaching is that just beneath the surface of the interviews and speeches, the published articles and school visits, is a dramatic story of a disorganized union trying, at times desperately, to pull itself together. I can't wait to tell the rest of this story! 

In tomorrow's post, I'll share some observations I've made about leadership's 'Vote Yes' campaign. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

About Portelos' ATR Status

After my last post about Francesco Portelos, I got a text from a friend who reminded me that Homer's Odyssey, a poem which I referenced,  did not begin at the beginning and did not exactly end at the end.  The poem actually begins a full ten years after the fall of Troy, well into Odysseys' captivity on the island of Ogygia. It ends with what would otherwise be many unanswered questions (Odysseys is delivered home and  back in charge of his castle, but with an angry class of aristocrats and a dad who hasn't even been told he is still alive) had it not been for an intervention from the Greek Goddess of Wisdom. She fixes everything tells Odysseus to chill out (my friend's quote. Not mine).

Part of the beauty of the story, says my friend, is the chaotic manner in which it is presented to the reader. Skewing the timeline in such a way that much of the story winds up told as a flashback leaves the reader with a first-hand sense of the chaos that swept across post-Trojan War Greece (chaos which parallels the Greek Dark Ages).

So says my friend.

I mention it here because Portelos' story seems just as chaotic as Odysseus' and the parallels are too similar to easily ignore. Like the main character, Portelos is on a long, long, journey and is trying to head back to where he began (to his school in Staten Island). Like Odysseus, he was held in what could easily be described as captivity for a public school teacher. (The 'rubber room' may be described by some as a mere holding facility where a public employee awaits a hearing. Stipulating this, I've always found that the people who describe it this way never quite understand that teachers come to this professional based on a deep sense of purpose and calling. For many, to be teaching a lesson to a class of students is to be at the very epicenter of joy. To be placed in a rubber room is much akin to being ripped from that joy. And to do what you can to return to where you know you belong  is more similar to an Odyssey than different.) Like Odysseus, Portelos' story is at once crazy, insane, confusing and unbelievable. Like the story of Odysseus, surmounting one hurdle doesn't lead to the resolution some had hoped. It only leads to another hurdle.

I thought the last hurdle for Portelos' was his termination hearing. The hearing officer decided that he should not be fired, but and urged the DOE to return him back to the classroom. At an Executive Board meeting last Monday, my union president told a long time activist that, under the new proposed contract, teachers who were sent to a hearing but were only issued a small fine would be sent back to their school, not the ATR. But hearing officers do not get to set policy for the Department of Education and the clause in the proposed contract defines 'minor' fine as "less than $2,000, so the DOE was perfectly free to do whatever they chose with Portelos.  They chose to put him on rotation as an ATR. Odysseus will not yet be returning back to the classroom. (Brief note: It should be mentioned that it isn't often that a hearing officer specifically states that the teacher belongs in the classroom, not on rotation in the teacher reserve. Also, I suspect (but cannot assert) that the average fine for a teacher who goes through a hearing is a lot more than just $2,000).

The man wishes to be back in the school that is in his community -the school where his staff elected him union representative, while he was in the rubber room (something that has never been done so far as I can see) and where he wishes his own children to someday attend- as a STEM teacher. A fair understanding of the Portelos related events that, for several years now, have unfolded before all of our eyes can only lead to one simple conclusion: He'll keep fighting to get there.

He has many options at his disposal. He could convince the union to take up his cause and have them mediate a final resolution to this mess. Failing that, many teachers have turned to the courts to to sue.  Some have won, some have lost (his case, if he chooses to file one, may be stronger than most).

What seems  painfully clear to me is that this man will refuse to leave the public stage until he may -finally- return to his classroom. Being public is his first, best move and he has thus far brilliantly played out his hand. Also painfully obvious is that his employer, who I am admitadely very grateful to call mine,  needs at the very least some cajoling that the students and community of his school are better off with him than without. At most, it needs outright convincing of this.

Perhaps it is time to begin appealing to the better angels of everyone's nature and consider how both sides can, as Athena urged at the end Homer's tale, 'Call a halt to the great leveler, War.' Certainly I grow weary of press releases and PR statements and I sure would like to stop thinking of new metaphors to describe the plight of a man who has been a friend to me and to many, many others across the city.

Yet at the same time, I understand that the Goddess of Wisdom will not descend and fix things. Both sides are well beyond that point. So I will watch, at times with horror, as this epic continues to unfold and wish the best for both my colleague and for my employer.

But it is my opinion, and the opinion of many others, that Francesco Portelos needs to be back in a NYC classroom. And we all need to be talking about other things.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Francesco Odysseus Portelos: Please Return To Your Class!

Let the word go out from south Brooklyn to the upper Bronx that the last major battle of the Edwars here in New York City has ended with a victory for the teacher. In a 109 page decision, the hearing officer assigned to decide Francesco's fate decided not only that he not only that he was a "highly effective" teacher that should not be fired, but stated clearly and for the record that he needs to be teaching kids again:
After two years of reassignment, it is important that Respondent be returned to the classroom.'

Francesco's strange and bizarre odyssey began with him as a member of the school's leadership committee, the SLT. It passed through unknown investigations and appearances in the newspapers before leading to removal, then reassignment, then reassignment again. Along the way, his Odyssey lead the entire city to face the realization that Bloomberg's DOE was still hiding teachers in "Rubber Rooms". It realized an independent investigative body that declined to substantiate charges of employee misconduct against him and witnessed the department move forward with dismissal charges for employee misconduct anyway. It made him a big star. And it morphed him into a lightening rod for defending educators.

It then lead to a hearing -itself its own Odyssey lasting more than five full months, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, leading to countless articles in the newspapers and posts throughout the blogosphere (including the support of the best union organizer the UFT has)- where, as he wrote today on his blog, he beat almost all of the thirty eight charges of employee misconduct against him.

At this point in this truncated history of Francesco Portelos, it may be a good idea to point out the absolutely obvious; that he has thus far beaten back every attempt to fire him and scare him into submission. He has done so with class, with dignity and, as his last controversy highlights (an official within the department actually had him arrested for writing satire on his blog), even a bit of humor.

He has come to be a thorn in the side to many, a folk hero to many more and has drafted the blueprint of how to defend yourself in this media-oriented world armed with nothing more than a smartphone, a mouth and a wifi connection.  As a UFT rep once told him, he broke rules they hadn't even thought of.  And though they may have take a run after him at some point in the future, the major question -of whether an unwritten policy that has been called "Accuse and Remove", which can take a teacher out of the classroom based solely on an accusation, can survive in this uber connected 21st century world where a teacher on the defense can learn the rules of the game and make sure that his name stays in the papers longer than the department has initially hoped- has been answered with a resounding no.

"Few men", wrote Homer, "can keep alive through a big serf to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind". Well Portelos, scrub that brine off. You've got a class to run.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

How Did Mulgrew Get a Such a Sizable Majority At the DA on Wednesday?

He talked!

He talked so long that people who don't usually go to Delegate Assemblies (many of whom feel out of place just being at one) were afraid they'd miss the train home and finally just decided to leave.  (I should know! I saw ten of them who I had spoken with earlier (and were going to vote no) plain up and walk out before the vote).

"The one thing you don't want --- is air in the conversation"
He talked for so long that the press, who normally love to present 'both sides' of an issue, left without waiting for the traditional quotes as the delegates left (but I got my two cents in with at least one reporter earlier in the evening as did many others).

He talked for so long that people who, at this moment, still intend to vote against the contract once it comes to a general member vote, voted for the proposal simply because they hoped it would make him stop taking!

He talked (a salesman's tactic, mind you, that helped me out a lot at parties back in my college days) for so long that, that so many people -mentally- simply gave up and submitted to what he was suggesting (that this is only a vote to send it to the members so they can vote on the contract. (Don't you think it's fair that they should be able to vote for themselves?)).

(this is an update) He talked! And he wasn't completely honest! He informed the members that the city doesn't have the money for a higher-than-inflation raise (it does). He said that the changes to our healthcare wouldn't equate to premiums (it may). He said that the ATRs would be just fine under this contract (they're not). He also said that members would get a chance to vote "at their schools" (they won't. They'll be mailing the ballots home). Such is honorable combat in the 21st Century world of unionism.

He talked for so long that James Eterno got ahold of the mic and rhetorically beat the living hell out of him for talking so much. This occurred on a level that -truly- only alpha males can understand -until it got so loud that everyone in the ballroom understood (Mr. Eterno's depiction of the exchange is far too understated for what I witnessed from the back of the hall).

Of course unknown to him, this happened with Brother Michael's face plastered on enormous HD monitors on either side of the stage. Those monitors displaying a beaten, shaved head and beleaguered scowl which revealed to all of us that he was clearly overwhelmed by the arguments placed in front of him at the moment. They also revealed a relieved smile when he ruled James 'out of order!' and took the floor from him.

And, of course, once that happened he stopped talking.

But the long (long) talk did it's job. It got him what he wanted: The vote. And when he stopped talking he called that vote.

Not before he assured delegates that they were only voting on a vote that would allow the members to vote (doesn't my union make so much sense?).

And when he got his vote, after almost 2 hours of straight taking, it was over. The delegates overwhelmingly decided to send a contract that provides wages which are more than 10% below inflation when measured against 2009, and special, lessened, protections for ATRs -the same contract that failed to cap class sizes, failed to cap case-loads for guidance counselors and failed to commit resources that would continue down the path of the Cincinnati Model where wrap-around services are provided at the school level -the same contract that doesn't go far enough to relieve the terrible plague of racial segregation that infests our schools and our city- to the members for a vote. And that's how my union president got the wide margin that he received.

"The one thing you don't want" says Big Dan Teague from the classic movie "is air in the conversation".

Monday, May 5, 2014

Faking It Until They Make It

The news this morning is a buzz with how beautiful or new contract is. They speak about its more attractive features (giving more time for planning and finding a more honorable way of rewarding good teachers (I realize that is a controversial point)).  It seems almost as though they're already running a victory lap. 

This contract has many wonderful components (some of which I've written about already). It will also make the union itself a stronger, more wealthy organization. But the ability to be fired with minimal job protections is a reality that we will all have to face if this contract is ratified. And that the meager wage increases are being billed as good is an insult plain and simple. They can do better.

No one I've spoken with believes they will be around long enough to collect that retroactive pay that has been promised by the leadership.

Perhaps this is why the UFT had to delete several dozen comments from their Facebook page decrying the unfairness of this arrangement? Perhaps everyone's goal is to make it look like a win so that it becomes a win?  We shall see.

I'll be signing autographs at the Executive Board meeting tonight at UFT HQ ;) Oh and I'll me getting a peak at the details if this proposal. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dude, This is Pretty Messed Up Right Here (My New Contract)

I LOVE the new innovations:

  • teachers as validators
  • teachers paid more to be Ambassadors, Model and Master Teachers
  • More PD time During the Week
  • The poison pill given to charter schools (Stuff it Eva!)L: 200 new schools to operate on a thinner contract. 

I HATE HATE HATE that they're asking us to approve:
  • Firing ATRs with as little as two days in the classroom
  • Giving us meager wage increases (4-4-0-0-1-1-1-1.5-2.5-3). Honestly, folks. This doesn't even keep up with the 2.2.% inflation since '09 -much less the inflation that we're all in for
  • Making us wait until 2015 for the first (of 5) disbursements of our retroactive pay).
  • Allowing only $5,000 for good teachers to go into tough schools (not NEARLY enough to convince teachers to address the MASSIVE issues of inequality in our city schools)
  • Giving in to merit pay (side note: I'll probably qualify for this and when I do, I'll spend it on a full page ad denouncing it) 
  • Test scores will still count on teachers' evaluations. 
I'm voting no on behalf of my ATR brothers and sisters. I'm voting no because of the meager wage increases. I'm voting no because I don't want to wait to 2015 for my first round of back pay. 

I'm voting no because this is a bad deal for classroom teachers.