A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Archive for November, 2017

Creative Insubordination

I was reading the latest column of my local union’s president, a dirge to the decline in the satisfaction from their work that her members are getting from their work. While here in the East salaries are respectable compared to the rest of the nation, teaching that is done for a salary alone is like bread made without salt – flat. Most of my successor’s lament can be subsumed under the heading of micromanagement, that corrosive need of insecure management to interfere in the minutest aspects of the work at hand. It creates an environment in which worker morale is on an ever downward slope and conversations between workers incline towards retirement rather than professional issues.

In our best days as teacher unionists, we organized to resist the administrative impediments to enjoying our work, believing that we had a right to practice our craft in a manner that maximized our pleasure in the practice of it. When we saw that spending a period monitoring a lunchroom full of teenagers could literally ruin one’s day, we slowly and quietly stopped going, ignoring the accusatory notes we often found in our letterboxes. When summoned to meetings with building administrators to explain our absence from these duties, we took pride in explaining how we had used the time for better purposes. Warned to attend, we often did for a day or two, only to start the insubordination process all over again. The more of us who ignored the duty, the more we were positioned to have a serious conversation with management about a more appropriate use of our professional time. When I was a high school building rep, I had an honor roll bulletin board in the teachers’ cafeteria to which I pinned administrative letters of admonishment for breaking stupid rules.

Workplace problems don’t have to wait for grievances or contract negotiations. They are best soled at the most local level by organized resistance. Today’s union teachers have to learn this lesson again.

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Combating Sexual Abuse

Walk down the halls of any American high school and you can observe to a reasonable degree of certainty the boys who will grow into abusers of women. Over the years I taught, I took dozens of girls aside to let them know that the publically physical behavior of the boys they were attached to was not only not indicative of real affection but was also an ominous sign of a pattern of behavior that tends to grow worse over time. I would try to get girls to understand that physical abuse is not an appropriate price to pay for male attention and the social status that tends to accrue to high school girls who have it.

While our nation is focused on the sexual misbehavior of some of the powerful males in our society, it’s appropriate to think seriously about what we do in our schools to acculturate boys to constrain their impulses and respect the right of girls to be free from undesired, sexually aggressive male behavior. While the misbehavior of the famous and powerful is deeply troubling, it can tend to mask the broad prevalence of violence against women in our society and our failure to as yet come up with an approach to stem it. Surely, if we can observe the budding of this behavior in the boys in our public schools, we are ethically obliged to think through a program to combat it.

I know that some of my readers are fuming at my suggestion of adding one more job to the teaching day. That’s not what I’m about. I’m well aware that the expectations for what teachers are to accomplish in a workday far exceed what time will allow. Rather that suggesting an extra job, I believe the socialization of children central to the mission of public schools. Surely part of that socialization process needs to be the inculcation of appropriate norms of male/female interactions.

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Tax Bill a Shot at Public Education

I’ve seen little in the criticism of the Republican’s legislation to redistribute income to the wealthiest Americans about the threat it poses to the financing of public education. Limiting the deductibility of state and local taxes and mortgage interest payments will have a profoundly negative effect on the ability of school districts to raise the revenue necessary to maintain quality. Under the current federal tax law, there has been a growing reluctance of people to shoulder an ever growing property tax burden leading to support for property tax caps in states like New York and California.

The deductibility of state and local taxes and mortgage interest has been part of a conscious federal effort to encourage home ownership. Had these policies not been put in place, our suburbs would undoubtedly look very different than they do today. Removing these inducement to home ownership will not only make the already difficult job of financing public education in our suburbs more difficult, it will probably also slow or end the appreciation of real estate in suburban communities, further enraging homeowners as the equity in their houses fails to meet their expectations.

There is no doubt about it. This so-called tax reform redistributes income upwards while it takes a retributive shot at blue states that support public education and quality government services.

I’m off to California for a few says. I’ll be back here on the 27th.

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Diversity and School Calendars

For most of my career teaching in suburban Long Island, there was always a yearly struggle to build the school calendar for the following school year. This entailed balancing the demands of religious constituencies for their holidays off along with the overarching needs of parents and staff for the longest possible spring, winter and February breaks. Some of the hardest feelings were generated by the slightest adjustments to the school calendar that were perceived by one group or another as an intentional slight. Over the years, superintendents of schools and boards of education have bowed to political pressures and increased the number of school holidays, attempting to assuage bad feelings but making it increasingly difficult to construct a school calendar.

In recent years, our community has grown more diverse, with an influx of Asian immigrants of varying ethnicity and religion. It’s not surprising, therefore, that they have begun to exert political pressure for the inclusion of their holidays into the school calendar. Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists have holidays which in their home countries are days of celebration free from work and school. Their rights to their holidays are no less than the majority’s. How should a secular institution respond to the growing demands for religious days off?

Most people will accept a school calendar that is objectively fair. Most, in an arrangement that is fair, will accept the loss of some holidays they currently have, holidays that their religious leaders teach can be observed without refraining from work and school. It should be possible to bring the leaders of the various groups together and negotiate an understanding that gives every constituency what they must agree is a fair number of holidays when school is closed. Possible doesn’t mean that is will be easy. It surely won’t, but the alternative to building such a consensus is much worse. People who feel themselves aggrieved don’t go away. Their grievances are magnified the more reasonable accommodations of their needs are not met. This would be an excellent time for the leaders of the majority faiths in our community to come forward and lead the way to a solution that all community members may not like but have to admit is fair.

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The Party of Reactionaries

It’s disturbingly fascinating to watch the Republican Party become the home of white reactionaries, people for whom the pace of change of modern life threatens their very identity. Faced with the fact that white people will soon be a minority, challenged by the demands of women for political and economic equality, revolted by a world in which gender boundaries are adumbrated, aghast at a country that grows progressively more secular and terrified by an economy that technologically displaces workers faster than they can be retrained, today’s Republicans increasingly appear to embrace an authoritarianism predicated on blood and soil. They want to believe that they can wall off the United States from the modern world and its threats to their way of life, decadent though it may be. This retreat from modernity has been going on for some time. Donald Trump didn’t invent it. He just saw in it an opportunity to be exploited. In Alabama, Roy Moore’s supporters will vote for a child molester rather than chance the possibilities of progressive change.

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ConCon Gave Us an Organizing Success

The vote against holding a constitutional conventional in New York was over 80 percent – 80 percent! That massive outpouring of voters is largely attributable to the efforts of the state’s unions that both educated their memberships to the dangers posed by a convention and organized them to work against it. The work to defeat the convention was the best union organizing we’ve seen in a long time. It should serve as an example to a weakened labor movement of what can still be done when memberships are led to take on difficult issues that threaten them.

The kind of effort that went into the defeat of the constitutional convention can and must be replicated to insulate ourselves from the threat of the loss of agency fee and due s deduction. Why hasn’t every public sector union developed an organizing campaign against the worst possible outcomes of an adverse decision in the Janus Case currently before the Supreme Court? Why aren’t plans in place to protect our unions from the loss of dues deduction? Why do we appear to be accepting the conventional wisdom that says that public sector unions can expect to lose upwards of 30 percent of their membership from an adverse decision in Janus?

Before I left office in my local, I started a process of signing members up each year in anticipation the real possibility of losing agency fee. My local has continued that process. Should we lose agency fee tomorrow, 100 percent of our members are signed up for next year. The card signing process in addition to protecting the local has served to educate members to the ongoing threat from the so-called Right to Work Movement to eviscerate what remains of our labor movement so as to strip from American workers the rights and protections a century or more of union struggle has provided. It is additionally empowering to a membership to know that they have collectively worked to protect themselves. That membership success makes it easier to organize the next collective effort.

The constitutional convention issue awakened the organizing talents of our unions. Those talents must now be unleashed on the continuing existential threats before us.

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The High Tech Swindle

The November 3rd New York Times carried a front page article entitled “How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom.” The article, while focused on the Baltimore County schools, exposes the massive sales campaign of America’s high tech companies to infiltrate the public school market, using marketing ploys similar to those used by the drug companies on physicians on public school decision makers. Trips, meals and other ethically challenged ploys are used to convince school leaders of the necessity of massive investments in computers and software despite the fact that there is almost no hard evidence that these technology expenditures have any positive effect on student learning.

The publication of this article is a sign of the growing awareness of the abject stupidity of contemporary education policy that has witnessed massive expenditures of public funds on the fool’s errand of attempting to keep our schools equipped with the latest technological devices in the belief that we are preparing students for the jobs of the future. Once hooked on being technologically current, school districts effectively surrender significant portions of their tight budgets to high tech peddlers. Even more significantly and essentially unappreciated, they surrender control of what and how children are taught to corporate decision makers rather than knowledgeable and experienced educators.

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Helping Young Immigrants Fit In

The emerging picture of Sayfullo Saipov is of an immigrant who comes to the United States with great expectations but whose dreams rapidly fade as he cannot seem to fit in to a society so fundamentally different from his own. Trained in Uzbekistan for the hotel industry and never being able enter that business here, Saipov bounces around from place to place driving trucks for his living and said to be growing angrier and angrier as his need to feel he belongs leads him to a distorted understanding of Islam.

The human desire to fit in is embedded in our DNA. People who are unable to fit into the mainstream of society will usually find some other niche, the need to belong overpowering their powers of judgment, particularly in the young. My impression is that we do a very poorer job of acculturating immigrant young people to our society. Walk into the cafeteria of any American public high school with immigrant students and you will see kids grouping themselves by their ethnicity. While they do so out of a natural inclination to belong, we ought to be imaginatively structuring their school experience to have them interacting with American kids throughout their school day, giving them positive experiences that bring them a growing sense of being American. We ought to be talking to them from the time they arrive in our schools about aiming to become U.S. citizens, guiding them on the steps to citizenship. To the extent this is happening at all, it is the result of the altruism of some good teachers and administrators. However, we need to make it a core mission of our public schools.

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