July/August 2019 Issue
June 21, 2019

Union pilot program urges new teachers to confront injustice

Author: by Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
justice workshop
Caption: Oriana Miles, a new teacher from Schenectady said the union’s important work on culturally responsive teaching must be inclusive of all educators — and given adequate time and support.

The sticky notes said it all.

When asked to write down key takeaways from a racial justice awareness initiative, new members shared how the unionbacked pilot project has influenced their thinking both inside and outside the classroom.

“I’ve learned that in looking at data, numbers do not lie but they don’t always tell the whole story,” wrote one teacher. “We must ask questions and challenge ourselves.”

“My interactions with parents and families are more thoughtful. I make more of an effort to be empathetic,” another noted.

“It has impacted my personal life, too,” one note read. “I am much more aware of conversation, actions and behavior.”

Those were exactly the kind of responses group leaders were hoping for as NYSUT and the Amsterdam, Schenectady and Kingston local unions pioneered an expanded mentoring program to help early career educators better recognize and proactively address systemic injustice in their schools. The pilot is funded through a three-year grant from the National Education Association.

This year’s programming included a series of large group and in-district professional learning sessions led by Kathleen McLean, NYSUT’s Education & Learning Trust; and University at Albany faculty members Alex Pieterse, a professor in educational and counseling psychology; and Kathryn Schiller of the educational policy and leadership department.

Workshops delved into racial disparities in school discipline; implicit bias; and understanding inequities in educational opportunities.

“Doing this work on cultural bias has a larger benefit for all groups,” Pieterse noted. For example, as he took a closer look at why disciplinary actions disproportionately affected boys of color and students with disabilities, Pieterse’s objective shifted.

“I’ve come to appreciate the goal is not (just) to restore balance ... but to reduce the use of discipline that is ineffective. If we do that, everybody benefits.”

Schiller, who is working with her doctoral student to evaluate the impact of the program, said online surveys have helped identify school climate perceptions and differences in opinion reported by untenured and tenured educators. “Data talks about how the workshops are impacting districts, but we need to look at how to turn data into action,” Schiller said.

“It’s this dialogue that moves us, not just diving into the data,” said Schenectady Federation of Teachers President Juliet Benaquisto. “It’s important we’re learning from our new teachers.”

In a May debriefing meeting, participants talked about how to bring the program to more educators. Plans include courses offered through NYSUT’s Education & Learning Trust, teacher centers and school-based Professional Learning Communities.

“This needs to be mandatory training, not just for new teachers,” said SFT’s Zach Pearce, a new social studies teacher.

“If it’s a top-down mandate, it can be seen as ugly,” said Oriana Miles, another new teacher in Schenectady. “You need to give it adequate time and support. Culturally responsive teaching can’t be taught in a quick seminar.”

“It’s important for the union to be behind this,” said Damonni Farley, coordinator of family and community relations at Schenectady schools. “When it’s a shared value, it lowers the risk and makes it okay.”