For the 27 years I have worked in New York City public schools, the best part of my day has been the time spent in the classroom, teaching my students. When I engaged young people in the dialogue and discussion that is the heart and soul of learning and intellectual awakening, I felt a sense of meaning and purpose unlike anything I experienced in other work I have done. That’s why teachers are so passionate about the work we do with our students.
In an age when the denigration of public service and teaching by the wealthy and powerful has reached a fever pitch unimaginable only a few short years ago, the time we spend teaching our students provides us with a daily reminder of the amazing grace that is our teaching vocation. Every day, we create and nurture significant educational relationships with our students and with each other. Every day, these relationships save lives that would be otherwise lost. Every day, these relationships allow our students to realize untapped potential and explore new possibilities. The redemptive power of these educational relationships gives us the fortitude and the wisdom we need to overcome the vicious assaults on our labor and our schools. We know the truth of our work as teachers in ways that no vain and self-involved politician, no shallow Hollywood movie and no campaign of disparagement and demoralization can ever undo.
In the five years I have served as a vice president of the UFT, my time in the classroom has become even more important to me. In the negotiations and meetings that have taken up much of my time as a union officer, the denizens of City Hall and Tweed have invariably approached the issues before us from a political — not an educational — perspective. From the mayor and his deputy mayors to the chancellor and his deputy chancellors, they have focused on a political agenda, a brand of “education reform” that seeks to remake public schools in the image and likeness of private, for-profit corporations. In their dystopian vision of an educational future ruled by monetary incentives and profit-making enterprises, there is no place for authentic teacher voice rooted in our classes and our schools. My own daily experience in the classroom provided me with a moral authority to challenge those who want to silence teacher voice. And my students provided a welcome haven from the so-called reformers’ cynical politics. The wonderful thing about teenagers is that there is little artifice and guile in their communication: They let adults know very quickly and directly how they feel and why they feel that way.
The life of a teacher has its own distinctive rhythms, its own calendar. The most important season, our time of hope and expectation, comes in those first days of September when we begin anew the process of teaching and learning with new classes of students. For 27 years, I have lived this season of hope in New York City public schools, from Clara Barton HS to Bard HS Early College. But in the coming year, I will be leaving New York City schools and my position as UFT vice president for academic high schools to take on new work as executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute at the American Federation of Teachers. This is not a change that I make easily, or that I make without regret — most important, the regret of beginning this school year without standing in front of a new class. But the prospect of leading the AFT’s policy think tank is a unique opportunity to promote teacher voice and union voice in educational policy debates. Today, our impoverished public discourse on American education is dominated by those who never taught an actual class or led a real school and those whose brief journeys through the world of teaching did not last long enough to even discover what they did not know. Proud in their ignorance, they pass uninformed judgment on our work and advocate policies that can only do harm to the students we teach and care for. The voice of teachers needs to be heard in that educational policy world, and that will now be my work.
The UFT is an extraordinary community of educators, dedicated to public service and acting in solidarity with each other. It has been an honor to represent that community as an officer of this union. And I will be proud to be your tribune in the debates over the future of the nation’s public schools.