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For the past four years I was a principal in a NYC unionized school. Although my relationships with my union representative and the majority of the union members were positive, it was difficult.


  • I had to limit class offerings to fit into the ‘no more than 3 subjects taught by a teacher’ rule

  • I had to shorten the ideal length of the school day to fit into 6 hours and 20 minutes

  • Although department meetings were important, I couldn’t have them on a weekly basis because the teachers voted against having two different professional period assignments

  • Although the students wanted a shortened lunch period and added classes, the contract required lunch to be equivalent to a class period

  • The time-consuming, mountainous paperwork process required to remove and terminate staff members took me away from being in classrooms and supporting instruction


Many days I felt like I was in a battle choosing between teachers and students. I understood that teachers didn’t want a workload that was insurmountable but I knew that our students needed more than the contract allowed and it often left me frustrated. At many times, I felt like I had failed our population of students because my hands were bound by union law.


Although this was my environment, I still support teachers unions. The union provides a vast array of services and support. We must thank unions for establishing many of the working conditions we take advantage of everyday. Once minorities were allowed to join unions, it promoted the establishment of the minority middle class. There are few families, myself included, that have not benefited from union jobs.


But the teachers unions must change. The regulations around meetings, schedules and duties limit the individual school’s ability to create an environment that works best for the whole community-parents, students and teachers.


When I was a teacher at Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS), there was no mention of a contract. Although all the teachers were a part of the UFT (United Federation of Teachers), we worked to serve our students. The founder of the school, Deborah Meier, had left before my arrival but the environment she had created was still strong. The school was run in a collaborative manner and all voices were heard. The teachers created the master schedule, scheduled students and facilitated professional development. According to the contract, we all taught too many classes and didn’t have enough preps but the only ones we could blame were ourselves who created it. At CPESS, teachers were given the autonomy and accountability to develop an after-school program, new courses and create a positive learning environment for students and ourselves. I enjoyed all of the benefits of union membership but we didn’t feel confined by it.


Schools like CPESS shouldn’t be the exception. School communities need to be given the autonomy to build with the student in mind and still pay their union dues.


To find more posts on EDUSolidarity, you can go here: http://edusolidarity.us

 

This post is also available on my blog: The Education Traveler

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Comment by Thomas Whitby on June 10, 2011 at 11:34am

Mary

As a New York educator, my experience is that the NYC teachers' union is one of the toughest to deal with. There are however very good reasons for that. Those union efforts would not be in place if there were never great abuses by administrators in the first place. It is unfortunate when we get to a point where we must defend an extreme position in order to protect people from abuses of the past. Nevertheless, that union represents hundreds of thousands of teachers. More than represents, it protects them from being abused by a system that has grown beyond anything that anyone could have imagined when first thinking of what Public education should look like. As the system grew, so did the abuses,and consequently, so did the union.Would that w,e could have a do-over? That will not happen. My 2 cents.

Comment by Wendy Fisher on March 28, 2011 at 8:42pm
Although I understand your point of view Mary, I have to disagree with your view of unionized schools. I work at a unionized school with a very positive attitude and I have never felt confinded by my union. There are many of us that lose our preps on a daily basis and never complain. It is my choice to spend my time with students, not my union's. My administrators are outstanding and our union will do whatever we could to help our students and our community. I do, however, realize that we are lucky to have a positive environment to work in and that is not always the case in other districts. We have recently lost a million dollars in funding for the next school year thanks to a new governor, and we would volunteer in a heartbeat for pay freezes if we needed to in order to help the district. I am glad that you too have found a wonderful place to work. The working environment is essential to accomplishment.
Comment by Lisa Mims on March 23, 2011 at 7:31pm
Thanks Mary! It's interesting that although you had to deal with the union, you still support unions. I wish many others saw it your way.  A hairdresser in my salon was watching the news when all this started and she said, "Good, now they'll(teachers) will be like everyone else! ??? From a former New Yorker.:)

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