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Unfinished Business

[Editor's note: This "What Matters Most" column appeared in the New York Times on Sunday, June 28.]

Last week, I told New York City educators that I was stepping down from the best job I have ever had, leading the United Federation of Teachers. Last summer, after being elected president of my national union, l knew this day would eventually come but it was still hard. Why? Because there is always more to be done.

One of the most rewarding (and exhausting) things about working in public education in New York City is that it is the best laboratory in the world for trying new things. We have the most diverse student population in the world — 1.1 million kids from every kind of household, economic background and skill level. More than 150 languages are spoken in our schools. The 80 thousand teachers in our schools make up the best teaching force in the country in one of the toughest, most watched school systems there is.

Education is now front and center in our city’s agenda and will increasingly take center stage at the national level. Policy makers are beginning to understand what leaders like President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg did long ago — that we can’t have a strong economy, a strong city or a thriving nation without public schools that work for all kids. Governors are stepping up, as well. In response to our call for national standards, 46 members of the National Governor’s Association recently came out in support of common standards for our schools.

This focus raises the stakes on all of us — we all must perform at the top of our game to ensure that we are building a better future for our children. And a key ingredient to ensuring that our schools work as we continue to shape education policy is teacher voice. Teachers must be respected, treated as the professionals they are, listened to and cultivated for their expertise. For far too long, the debate around education was divided into camps where the so called “reformers” mistakenly and simplistically blamed teachers and their unions for all that ails the schools. Fortunately, led by the example of President Obama, as well as the multiple advances the UFT negotiated with Mayor Bloomberg, including ways to recruit, support, retain and reward great teachers and schools these false categories are beginning to dissolve and teachers and their unions are being appropriately looked to as a key part of the solution.

Teachers are also a vital part of the link between the community and the school, and the work we have done in that regard in New York City is the accomplishment of which I am most proud. Parent and community engagement in the schools cannot be manufactured by a think tank or dictated by a superintendent. It has to happen person by person and it takes time. And it doesn’t happen without teachers and principals fostering those connections.

If any link in the public education chain doesn’t include a teacher’s perspective — from idea generation to policy implementation to parental and community engagement — the chain breaks down. As educators, we know that schools with the most collaborative work environments thrive. We need to expand that spirit to the policy development level as well — sharing ideas, strategies and experiences so that the policies we develop for our children are put through a rigorous, real world process to determine their effectiveness.

When I started this job, I wanted to make every school a place where educators wanted to work and that parents wanted to send their kids. We aren’t there yet, but we’ve made a great deal of progress. It’s been an honor to serve New Yorkers and to represent their teachers. I will carry the lessons I learned from you with me to Washington to work nationally to ensure that every child in America has the opportunity to have a great public education.

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