Inside a state Supreme Courtroom on Staten Island, NYSUT on Jan. 14 will argue for the dismissal of the lawsuit challenging the state's tenure statute — the latest in a series of aggressive and proactive legal moves by the union to ensure due process for educators and students' access to a quality education remain protected.
Outside the courtroom, NYSUT — through the efforts of the union's "Tenure Ambassador Network" — is equally busy protecting educators' academic freedom and their ability to advocate on behalf of their students.
From Long Island to western New York, the tenure ambassadors, all distinguished education professionals, are defending tenure and spreading the message about why this important fundamental employment right matters.
Since the start of the school year, the ambassadors have addressed members of their local unions and participants at Election District meetings. They've written pieces on their locals' websites or in their locals' newsletters, and have met with their local presidents and shared NYSUT's extensive communication material focusing on tenure defense, which can be found at www.nysut.org/tenure.
The ambassadors also, on occasion, have helped the union respond to attacks on tenure in the statewide and local media.
"This project is really the first of its kind for the union, and one we believe is critically important to undertake," said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee. "Our members have more than risen to the occasion. Their dedication and work has been outstanding and inspiring."
Shortly after lawsuits were filed in July challenging New York state's tenure law, NYSUT determined a multipronged defense was necessary to ensure teachers' due process rights were protected. So, as a supplement to NYSUT's legal intervention, the union embarked on a full-throttle statewide communications plan. The centerpiece is a "rapid-response" team composed of teachers across the state who can act in the capacity of regional tenure spokespersons.
In late August, the first wave of volunteer ambassadors — some 30 in all, including National Board Certified Teachers, former New York State Teachers of the Year, local presidents and other educators — underwent nearly two days of intensive communications training to prepare for their new roles.
Stephen Bongiovi, New York state's 2006 Teacher of the Year, said he was prompted to serve as an ambassador by his antipathy for non-education professionals' growing voice in pubic education and the teaching profession.
"Bureaucratic decisions, whether local, statewide or even national, all too often emanate from the influence of those who are not educators, and seemingly without any input from the voices of teachers," said Bongiovi, who retired recently after an accomplished career as a high school English teacher and member of the United Teachers of Seaford.
"Even when teachers are ‘consulted,' their insight and advice is overlooked or ignored, almost as if just asking the educators was enough for the educational outsiders to be able to say, ‘See, we asked!' The Common Core and high-stakes testing rhetoric seemed to start this trend and attacking tenure was the next strategy in line."
The overarching goal of the Tenure Ambassador Network is to educate the public, fellow NYSUT members and the media about the importance tenure plays in ensuring New York state's quality teaching force remains among the nation's best and that all students have access to a quality education.
Thea MacFawn, a member of the North Colonie Teachers Association, said serving as an ambassador is important because protecting tenure ensures her students are receiving a high quality and challenging education.
"When a school's board of education decides that a teacher has earned tenure, that teacher knows his or her school district is invested in and interested in helping him grow as a professional," said MacFawn, who teaches high school English.
"This frees teachers to try new strategies and take risks in their instruction. Teaching is difficult and not every lesson or strategy works, but with due process protections, teachers have the confidence to try new approaches and incorporate new research into their work without worrying about being arbitrarily dismissed if a new idea doesn't work the first time."
When teachers are afforded such academic freedom, MacFawn said, it enables students to succeed in the classroom, and is instrumental in preparing them for life after graduation.
Elias Mestizo, a tenure ambassador and president of the Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association, is a middle school teacher in a district considered "low-performing."
"My colleagues have to speak up for the proper funding, proven decisions and resources for our students," Mestizo said.
"Nobody wants to speak about poverty and large class sizes, which impact student learning and outcomes. However, as teachers, we have to raise the issues and speak truth to power. Without the right to speak up without fear of retribution, we would be working in an environment of fear."
NYSUT is now eyeing a second wave of ambassador training. Interested members should contact their local presidents, who may then submit their names to NYSUT through their Regional Offices.
"The threats that confront our profession, brought by well-financed anti-labor forces and so-called education reformers, are very real and we, as a union, must be able to defend these attacks vigorously and head-on," said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, who heads the union's Research and Educational Services department, which was instrumental in forming the ambassador network.
"Our members are hard-working professionals and know firsthand the challenges educators face daily," Fortino added. "No one knows better than they the importance tenure plays in safeguarding an educator's voice in speaking up for their students."