Amy Nowak is a kindergarten teacher at Altamont Elementary School and a member of the Guilderland Teachers Association in Albany County. In May, she attended her first NYSUT Representative Assembly, held in Buffalo, as a new delegate.
1. What made you decide to run for delegate so you could attend the NYSUT RA?
Public education in New York is under attack. If you entered the profession because you care about children, and you care about democracy, and you want everyone to have the chance to succeed, then you have to be angry. You can't be in public education at this point and not be an activist at some level. I want to step up as much as I can.
2. What did you take away from this experience as a first-time delegate? What will you share with your colleagues in Guilderland.
I loved all of the talking, listening and understanding that happened throughout the RA. Go democracy! I think the lack of these things in our political environment is one reason teachers are so frustrated. I also enjoyed hearing members speak from the diverse corners of New York, coming from different educational backgrounds, and using the platform of RA in a variety of ways. I was inspired to go back to members of my union who have been quiet, explain the means through which they can get involved, and hopefully help them find their way to be an active union member.
3. As a kindergarten teacher, what motivates you the most to act on behalf of your students? What do you think could/should be changed for them?
When I started teaching kindergarten, it was recognized that kindergarten-aged children learn best through play and exploration. Students were encouraged to be creative, thoughtful and social learners. Academics were part of this holistic vision, but there was an understanding that not all 5-year-olds are supposed to look the same.
This is no longer what I see being valued in the primary classroom. I worry about teachers (especially new teachers who haven't seen this "other" classroom) being judged on how well their 5-year-olds perform on academic skills tests — skills that some students are not developmentally ready to learn. We need to have standards created by people who have a background in early childhood education.
4. You've been working as a teacher at a time when educators have been shown a lot of disrespect. What was it like to be at an RA, surrounded by people who show you respect through the union, through resolutions supporting educators and social justice issues, and who are actively engaged in making change?
It felt good. It feels good to be reminded that you are a professional and have chosen a profession that so many smart, compassionate, driven individuals are drawn to. During meals, walks to and from the RA, and my drive home, almost every conversation was about education and what collective actions can help make a change. It was an environment that encouraged the necessary discussion and thought for these times.
5. Guilderland sent several delegates to the RA. Has your local union been more active than usual?
We had six delegates: myself, Kim Dunham, Erin MacNamara, Tara Malloy-Grocki, Amy Salamone and Robert Whiteman. For the first time in my memory, there was an election because eight members were running for the six slots. All of us are of the mindset that we have to do all we can do. We didn't want to have any empty seats at the RA. We wanted our educational voices to be as loud as possible.
I have definitely seen an upswing in union participation over the last few years. Teachers are frustrated, and many see the union as their chance to be heard. In the last year, our GTA has formed a Political Action Committee that has been finding and publicizing ways for all members to get involved: sending out how-to fliers on contacting representatives, encouraging members to attend local rallies and meetings, organizing "Wear Your Black Union Shirt" Wednesdays.
At a recent "Meet Your Legislators" night, more than 100 Guilderland teachers showed up, wearing black, to let Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy and a representative for state Sen. George Amedore know how their recent votes will affect our public schools. It made me proud to be a member of the GTA.