Workload & Teacher Power: Reflections on an Organizing Victory at my school this year

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Do teachers and other educators have power to change things in our schools? Everyday I talk to teachers who are upset, saddened by negative changes, struggling to ensure all of their students succeed. Many days I ask my co-workers what we can do, or if they can help with something. Sometimes they say yes, but mostly they say they are too busy to do anything. Sometimes I feel like we are too busy drowning to organize a raft to save ourselves.

Yet over the last few months I had an experience at my Twin Cities school that has inspired me to rethink this issue. In my school, like many others, teachers are terrified of losing their jobs. Many of our students are not getting what they need and consequently the District is breathing down our neck, and pushing more initiatives than the principals can keep track of, much less implement in a way that will benefit our kids. We gain a sea of mostly useless meetings, professional development, professional learning communities and new lingo, all while having less time with our kids. My older co-workers have seen this again and again. Quick fixes instead of building trust and collaboration. No wonder many of them switch schools or take early retirement packages.

But this year was going to be different, because we were going to start acting like a union. A group of three teachers and support staff, some of them stewards, decided to start a series of conversations in the building about what people were experiencing. We decided that the atmosphere of the school was the issue on people’s lips and that we should create a space to discuss issues and find solutions.

We held discussions around the building in teacher’s classrooms and had surveys that we sent around and distributed at union meetings. In total, nearly 60 staff participated. We compiled the results creating a compelling record of how much we all care, and the day to day issues we are facing. We then went through and identified common themes. At the core of it, staff at our building were concerned about workload, being involved in decision-making, and racial justice.

We had a follow up meeting where about a dozen staff came in the busy time of December to propose specific solutions. Most of the specific solutions were about workload. Staff also wanted to have meaningful input in important decisions and there was some discussion and ideas for furthering racial justice. Race is a conversation I want to talk more about with my co-workers more.

That said, the tenured teachers among us took our solutions to Administration where they basically didn’t get anything, with a few concessions here and there. Our main concerns were about having too many meetings, but barely any time to meet as a grade level team to actually collaborate and work together. Instead school staff were pushed into mandatory committee meetings to address content entirely dictated by the administration, where the work that was done felt useless and unmotivating. We sent the proposal we brought to Administration to our co-workers along with the Administration’s responses, and called a meeting to see what people would think and want to do.

People had lots to say, yet felt afraid of doing more. Our goals seemed important but beyond the realm of the achievable. We would need to both solidify and broaden our group of organizers to include educators from every grade and job class in order to break through the culture of fear and into a place where we could get the word out, push issues and policies, and partner with parents around common goals…

Then in the midst of these conversations circulating around the building and the mess from snow days and conference rescheduling piling up, we got a break. More than a break—a victory. Mandatory professional development and professional learning community meetings had been canceled until after spring break. For at least six weeks we’d be free from these nice sounding, but totally ineffective meetings. Meetings that are a huge waste of time because they are imposed on, rather than grow out of teacher’s work of educating their students and collaborating organically to help each other. What had previously seemed impossible and beyond our courage to organize for, had now (temporarily) been achieved.

I hope this will help my co-workers better understand their power. If we organize we can take back our time so our kids get the education they deserve, and so we don’t burn out under a pile of paper. I know my co-workers see the writing on the wall, that if we can do better—sadly through the strange prism of test scores—this change has the possibility of being permanent.

I hope we continue to grow our group to really be organized, to really build with parents, students, and the community, to use the time we gain to refocus on the other issues of racial justice and decision-making that are central to improving our schools. I hope more of us get serious about getting the skills we need to organize effectively, which I receive on a regular basis as part of the IWW Education Organizing Committee. Feel free to contact us to learn more or join us.

Because we can’t solve our problems by closing our classroom doors and hoping that someone else—the union? School board? President?—will solve our problems for us. And while we ultimately need to take over the schools and make them our system not a system that we live with, steps like these can be taken in every school, right now. And those of us doing this work can communicate with each other, learn, share, build. If this was happening at every school today, imagine how much more powerful we would be!

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