A Teachable Moment

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

I’m Reminded

Some sixty years ago, my high school age friends and I went to a movie out of our immediate neighborhood in Brooklyn. As was our custom, we looked for a place to have something to eat after the show. Walking up Flatbush Avenue, the aromas of kosher deli wafted our way from a restaurant up the street, enticing us to the pleasures of corned beef and crinkle-cut French fries. We walked in, sat a a vacant table and began looking at the menu, when to the horror of my teenage, socially maladroit self who come to wait on us but Mr. G., one of my teachers. Objectively, I suppose, there was no reason for either of us to be embarrassed. Yet, both of us demonstrably were. I think I intuitively felt there was something wrong with a teacher working nights in a restaurant. There was certainly something wrong with him having to wait on me. It was left to Mr. G., the adult, to break the ice and try to make us both feel as comfortable as we could in our situation.

I now know that these were the times when the teacher labor movement was coming to life. There would soon be a teacher strike in New York, motivated by a generation of teachers who bravely demanded to be treated with respect, teachers who would no longer accept wages they couldn’t support their families on. They no longer wanted to work two and three jobs to eke out an existence. They were no longer accepting of having little or no say in how they did their work. Self-respect demanded that they break the law to obtain the justice they sought.

Ten years later, I would join their profession and their struggle. The organizing cry of my local union, a union that I would one day lead, was a starting teacher salary of $10,000. Shortly after I arrived, we struck to achieve our goal. Over the years, through our unions, we have been able to significantly improve the salaries and benefits of teachers. We were able to establish teaching as a solidly middle class job.

I’ve been thinking about those early days as I watch teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, areas of the country where the union movement never took hold as it did in other parts of the country, awaken to the intolerable conditions under which they work and organize themselves to demand better treatment. They remind me of past battles and of the ongoing struggle of teachers for dignity and status in a country that ironically sees education as the driver of economic progress. Perhaps from their ranks, a new generation of union leadership will emerge, a leadership recommitted to direct action on behalf of its membership, a leadership able to unite the entire profession in one big union committed to economic justice for all Americans.

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