If you have joined the New York City public school system in the last five years, you should know that you are now part of an extremely important and influential part of the UFT’s membership. Teachers hired since 2000 now constitute a solid majority of the union’s members, almost 55 percent.
(The 22 percent increase in starting salaries negotiated in the 2000-2003 contract — while the increase at most other levels was about 17 percent — can take most of the credit for that. And in the new agreement, not yet ratified, the UFT was the only municipal union, except for the much-smaller Doctor’s Council, to refuse to lower starting salaries for future members to finance raises for current members.)
And while this post-2000 group is of course younger, at an average age of 33, than the membership as a whole, many come in with years of experience, both in life and as teachers. Almost 20 percent are over age 40. Of the teachers hired just this year, 20 percent came in with prior teaching experience.
These last statistics popped into my mind just the other day when a group of brand-new Teaching Fellows from across the city were expressing their dismay about the way their supervisors treat them.
“I’m a grown-up,” one of them blurted out, a fact confirmed by the glint of a few silver strands among her curls. “But I’m not treated that way,” she continued. “They talk down to us as if we were the children.”
The stories these Fellows told could have been told by most of the other 6,000 new teachers in our schools, in every region and at every level. In addition to condescension and micro-management, many new members also face fear and intimidation. Placed in some of the most challenging teaching situations with some of the neediest students, they struggle to maintain order and meet the children’s needs, often without support and afraid to ask for it.
Many know that their insecurity and inexperience are being taken advantage of, when they are told, for example, to meet with their mentors and coaches after school, or to “help out” during their prep period by “watching” another teacher’s class for 20 or 30 minutes while she meets with the A.P. But they are loath to protest, not knowing the consequences of resistance.
Even worse, some new teachers know that their students are being cheated of conditions and services to which they are entitled, but the message they’ve received from both colleagues and supervisors is, “Don’t make waves.” (The union is pressing the City Council for whistle-blower protection for city workers who “make waves.”) And the mentors promised to every new teacher — and mandated by the state — have at least 16 other new teachers to get to, so the help they can offer is often too little, too late.
No wonder new teachers leave at such high rates. What had been a recruitment problem in the school system before the current contract is now a retention crisis. If you have five years in the system almost half the colleagues you started with have already left. More than a third left by the end of their second year.
The cost of replacing teachers who leave and training their replacements is more than $360 million statewide. In New York City, the cost of first-year teacher attrition alone exceeds $21 million. And that doesn’t count the personal devastation when a teacher gives up her dream, or the harm to the kids, who may have to adjust to two, three or more teachers in a single year.
The UFT offers loads of specialized services for new teachers, including advice on licensing and certification, a telephone helpline, and many courses and workshops through the Teacher Centers.
But as UFT President Randi Weingarten told some new teachers recently, the strength of a union is in its ability, not just to help members, but to empower them to help themselves. If we can use our union to create among newer teachers a community of mutual support, and eventually, of collective action, we can take more effective action against the disrespect and even tyranny that cause so many new people to flee.
Maybe we can create that community on line; maybe we need more traditional organizational structures. If you have any ideas about how the union can build a support network for newer teachers, please respond on this blog. Let’s see if we can get something going — of, by and for newer teachers.