The impact of teachers accounts for nearly half of the influences on student achievement. And part of making sure teachers are prepared to teach must be union work, said Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association.
"Ultimately, teachers do well only if students do well," Urbanski said. "As union president, I have to, not only make sure salaries and working conditions are right, but also spend no less time making sure our members are successful with their clients."
Urbanski and Susan Goodwin, director of the Rochester Teacher Center, led a session on the union's role in providing relevant professional development. The session was one of several breakouts at "Every Child Counts: A Symposium Dedicated to Ending the Gap," sponsored by New York State United Teachers.
With students of color - many living at or below the poverty line - representing 80 percent of students in the Rochester district, the union realized it had to do something to prepare its mostly white, suburban teachers.
"We channeled our resources to become as effective as possible at teaching children of color," Urbanski said.
The TA works in collaboration with the teacher center to instruct educators on cultural knowledge, sensitivities and other strategies.
"This idea that professional development is based on seat time has undermined the whole idea of teachers being part of the process of determining what teachers need to know," Goodwin said.
She encouraged educators to make a conscious effort to offer lessons that are relevant to students of color and take advantage of students' own experiences to deepen understanding and learning. Teachers must also not be afraid to pose tough questions, as the teacher center did when establishing its programs.
"Why has education not been a liberating force of people of color and women, Goodwin asked. "Or, what does it mean to be a teacher of a student of color?"
Unions also need to do a better job of making their positions clear, Urbanski said. In contrast to those critics who claim unions are obstructions to reform and protect incompetent teachers, unions have a vested interest in making sure every teacher is a good teacher.
In Rochester, teachers participate in a peer-review program that, in some cases, includes counseling people out of the profession.
"As a unionist and a teacher I will not allow the rare instance of a bad practitioner to jeopardize good practitioners," Urbanski said, cautioning that not everyone is ready for the process. "Our teachers bought into peer review simply on the premise that no one knows the difference between good and bad teaching better than the best teachers. But peer review can only thrive if the union proposes it."
Ultimately, making sure all schools are effective for all students will require collaboration from all stakeholders: parents, educators and administrators, Urbanski said.