As the only English as a second language teacher in the rural Medina School District, Colleen Moody often feels isolated. But that feeling disappeared over the weekend when she met with her peers as a new member of one of NYSUT's 12 subject area committees.
"This was so much more than I expected - totally worth my five-hour drive," said Moody, a 20-year ESL educator from western New York. "So many times you go to professional development and things get presented to you. This was just the opposite."
Moody, a member of the English Language Learner Committee, said it was especially helpful to brainstorm with colleagues about how to implement the state's new regulations for teaching ELLs.
"You realize that whether you're teaching in a big city, a suburb or in a 'department of one' like me, we all have common concerns," Moody said. "I feel connected and energized. I don't feel so alone."
That's exactly the idea behind NYSUT's subject area committees - to create an opportunity for educators in a dozen different disciplines to identify emerging issues and share concerns. About 140 teachers from around the state attended the groups' joint meeting Dec. 12-13.
NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, who chaired and served many years on the ELL Committee, said the newly appointed members would provide the practitioner's perspective on a wide range of current and proposed policies.
Committee members will serve as "an early warning system" by communicating issues and concerns from the field directly to NYSUT staff assigned to each committee. During their three-year terms, members will participate in online meetings, serve as peer reviewers for lesson plans developed by members, prepare examples of multiple measures of student achievement, and identify priority areas and communication needs.
The 12 subject area committees include Arts: Music, Dance, Theater & Visual Arts; Career and Technical Education; Early Childhood Education; Educational Technology; English Language Arts; English Language Learners; Health Education, Physical Education and Family & Consumer Sciences; Languages Other Than English; Math, Science & Technology; Social Studies; Special Education; and Teacher Centers.
"This is about practitioners from all parts of the state learning about each other and sharing common concerns," Fortino said. "It's about giving practitioners voice and building teacher leadership and unionism."
Members of the Early Childhood Education Committee, for example, talked about better early intervention strategies, professional development for pre-K staff, and curriculum that is developmentally appropriate. Educators lamented that due to the focus on testing, many early childhood standbys like blocks, kitchen areas and rest time were disappearing from their classrooms. They talked about establishing sensible class size limits when Yonkers kindergarten teacher Joann Kleinelp explained how she has 28 students with only one aide for a couple hours in the morning and at release time.
The Educational Technology Committee focused on how the application process will work for dispensing funding from the $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act, and recommended that sign-off be required by the local union president.
ELA Committee members called for high-quality lessons on reading informational text, noting the new English Regents Exam is more like an Advanced Placement test than high school-level writing. Teachers of Languages Other Than English discussed the loss of programs, with many districts down to offering only one foreign language and eliminating high-level classes. Committee members agreed LOTE must be treated as a core subject, not a dispensable elective. Science and math teachers talked about incorporating more current events into their instruction and perhaps developing a blog with resources to share problem-solving strategies.
"Anybody who (criticizes) unions should have been a fly on the wall in our meeting," said a teacher from the Special Education Committee. "We spent hours and hours talking about kids. That's what it's about."
"That's the voice you bring," said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee, after she listened to each committee report out their priorities. "This was extremely helpful as we gather your thoughts, your ideas, your passion. Don't lose that!"