A day of solidarity, strategy and calls for unity marked the Local and Retiree Council Presidents Conference that preceded NYSUT's 40th Representative Assembly.
The conference offered presidents the opportunity to obtain valuable updates and training on a range of pressing topics: teacher evaluations, political action, bullying, higher education and the mobilization of retirees.
Concern about teacher evaluations and standardized testing set the tone for a frank and productive question-and-answer session between the presidents and NYSUT officers. Nearly 400 local and retiree council presidents packed a meeting room for the dialogue with NYSUT President DIck Iannuzzi and officers Andy Pallotta, Maria Neira, Kathleen Donahue and Lee Cutler.
Iannuzzi spoke of the challenge of public messaging in a media climate hostile to unions and affirmed the importance of local leaders' roles in communicating to members. And he made it clear that NYSUT's top leaders never stop fighting on members' behalf, and hear and share members' deep pain and anger over bad public policies.
While several leaders were concerned that the media would seek to portray even democratic debate in a negative light — specifically a pre-RA rally by one local and the protest of the education commissioner's visit by another — Iannuzzi described NYSUT as a "big, diverse and democratic tent," strong enough to allow members and leaders to demonstrate their frustrations.
Given the concerns and questions about APPR, Neira said she "could not be more proud" of the six locals that broke new ground in developing NYSUT's Teacher Evaluation and Development (TED) system through a NYSUT/AFT Innovation Initiative. "They've taken it on and done it the right way," Neira said.
A workshop on evaluations provided dedicated time for NYSUT staff to answer questions and clear up many inaccuracies, such as: There is no certain percentage or number of teachers who must be rated in any one evaluation category, and local districts do not need to use every element of state-approved evaluation rubrics.
Members of NYSUT's Higher Education Council used their meeting at the pre-RA conference to prepare for State Education Commissioner John King's visit to the RA. (See related story). NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira told council members that "it's critically important that we remind the commissioner that he is P-20," in a reference to SED's mission to represent all public education, from prekindergarten through doctoral studies.
At the session on how to stop bullying, School-Related Professionals leaders learned the details of New York's new anti-bullying law, the Dignity for All Students Act. At the mobilization workshop, a panel of retiree leaders shared best practices for cultivating the experience and strength of retiree members. Their advice: Learn the value of face-to-face interaction with both lawmakers and voters in local districts. Nothing beats the impassioned message of a member looking a lawmaker or neighbor straight in the eye and making that all-important personal connection.
Leaders also received a rousing call for solidarity from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who urged them to resist the impulse to "hunker down" or "give up."
Weingarten, speaking at the conference for the first time, encouraged local leaders to use negotiations with districts "as a huge lever and opportunity" to shape an evaluation system that is meaningful and fair.
"I know people here are unhappy about APPR," she said. "I know what that really is about is (concern) that the testing regimen is being substituted for teaching and learning ... we have to stop the testing fixation."