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It’s a book. Read it.

July 26, 2014 pm31 2:02 pm

José Vilson wrote a book. That you should read. And, maybe get others to read. He called it “This is Not a Test

I don’t do book reviews. But this is different. It’s José.

Vilson is a blogger, and a poet, and a teacher. The author part wouldn’t matter if he wasn’t a teacher. He wrote a book about teaching. Some about his teachers. And some more about him, the teacher. All here in New York City. Manhattan.

So look. I’m not doing a long write up of what I liked about the book. He tells a good story. Some of the anecdotes are like a slap in the face, others as sweet as a first kiss. He’s got his influences, his growing up on the Lower East Side. He’s got the time his answer was wrong, until it was repeated by a white kid. He’s got rejection, cockiness, becoming a teacher, screwing up, and getting stuff right.

I liked the first part, about him growing up. And the second part, about him being a teacher. But I didn’t really get the third, shorter part. Felt like an add-on.

I mean, other people, smarter, more important, have written glowing reviews. Diane Ravitch big enough for you? They describe his style and his voice and his getting-it-ness better than I can. Even better, Karen Lewis – that Karen Lewis – wrote the forward. With all those big shots, why should I bother? Because it’s Jose, I need to do this.

There are other books about teaching in NYC. They are probably fine books, written by people who really taught. And they may contain interesting stories and insights. But some taught briefly. Others were in awe of NYC, not having grown up here. Others – poor word choice, I know – can’t get past their first experience working with so many people who weren’t white. These books can be interesting, but they are not the same thing. And then there are the books about teaching by people who’ve never taught, and don’t know anything about how schools or teaching work. Those books are not interesting.

“This is Not a Test” is a real book, about a real NYC kid, both Haitian and Dominican, but not really either. He’s smart. He teaches math, but he uses words – blogger, poet, author. He can write. He became a teacher recently enough that he remembers how bad starting sucks, but he’s been doing it long enough, and well enough, that he gets a chunk of the big picture. And he has stories. And trust me. You should read this.

Look what I did with my extra copy:



I think I’m supposed to mention that the publisher is Haymarket Books, and that they are cool and you should check them out.

Why the fuss over retroactive pay?

July 24, 2014 pm31 1:37 pm

Teachers and paras are suing the UFT for retroactive pay? The principals’ union is calling the mayor “outrageous” for refusing to pay retro to principals? What gives?

The contract as written does not include retroactive payments. Instead, there are lump sums equivalent to what a member would have earned from 2009-11, payable only to retirees and in-service members. The principals are right to be pissed, but they do not have standing to complain. The members who left service have a right to be super-pissed – they were intentionally left out of this agreement.

But they are wrong on two counts – 1. despite the UFT frequently using the word “retroactive” in the campaign to get this contract passed, there is nothing in the contract that says “retroactive” and 2. suing the union is something that should make all of us uncomfortable.

Maximizing “the package”

So what happened? In short, the UFT leadership wanted members to vote yes. They wanted to claim “full retroactivity.” They wanted to show as big a raise as they could. So they worked with the DoE to maximize the payments members would get, by excluding some people from the payments. And they never really said they were doing this. They emphasized “full retro” and scrunched the raise per cents together to make them seem as large as possible. In fact, when one high-ranking UFTer read the negotiating committee the size of each year’s raise, when he came to the 0 year, he just skipped it, leaving people confused as to how many years the contract ran for.

Creating Winners – and losers

Who was left out? The biggest group – anyone who quit before today. That includes people who left on disability (one such para is a party to the lawsuit), people who were discontinued, including unfairly by incompetent or abusive principals, people who left vested, planning to retire a few years down the road….. The NY Daily News thinks there are 9000 people in these groups. I suspect the number is a bit higher. Now, that means no pay for a group of people who don’t vote, and more for everyone else. No, not fair. But I see the cynical logic.

And, apparently, anyone who moved to a non-UFT title. We just heard about teachers who moved to principals. There may be other such groups.

In addition, everyone here today will start getting their payments on schedule (1/8 Oct 1 ’15, 1/8 Oct 1 ’17, 1/4 Oct 1 ’18, 1/4 Oct 1 ’19, 1/4 Oct 1 ’20). However, anyone who should quit, resign, get discontinued – or perhaps even die – they will not get future payments. And it seems that any teacher taking a principal job in the next 6 years will suffer a pretty sharp financial hit as a consequence. Figure the DoE and UFT had actuaries and accountants actually calculate how much money would get freed up in that way.

Retroactive in Print, and Not

The New York City Department of Education – United Federation of Teachers contracts that were just ratified, cover 2009 – 2018.  Other City unions had previously settled for 2009- 2011, getting 4% and 4%. There was an expectation that UFT members would get those same raises, retroactively. That’s almost, but not quite, what happened.

The UFT Leadership boasted that they had gotten us “full retro pay.” Everyone who heard Mulgrew speak would have sworn that he said we were all getting full retroactive money. But in print, they were lawyerly. What follows are from e-mails to the membership, signed by Michael Mulgrew.

May 1:  Over the life of this nine-year pact, which runs through October 2018, UFT members will receive an 18 percent raise, full retroactivity as well as a $1,000 signing bonus upon ratification.

May 4: We were able to negotiate the wage increases in this package — including the two 4 percent increases that the previous administration had insisted that the city could never afford — through stretching out how the retroactive raises are being paid. Be assured that all members will receive every penny that they have earned since Nov. 1, 2009 as long as they are in-service, have retired since that date or are planning to retire in the future.

May 5: The phase-in of the retroactive raises has no bearing on the final amount of retro payments you’ll receive. All in-service and retired members will receive 100 percent of the money they are entitled to, compounded back to Nov. 1, 2009, by 2020.

May 9: The vast majority of questions we are receiving are about the salary increases and the retro package. If this contract is ratified, all in-service and retired members will receive 100 percent of the money they are entitled to, back to Nov. 1, 2009, by 2020.

Notice how “full retroactivity” on May 1 got a caveat added on May 4: “as long as they are in-service, have retired since that date or are planning to retire in the future”. By May 9 the raises have become a “package.”

On May 1 there was no qualification of who was getting the back pay. On May 4 it was limited to in-service, retired, and those planning to retire.

And then the Memorandum of Agreement came out, and the word “retroactive” did not appear at all. Read it for yourself (3. Wages, sections B and E)



Sabbatical – one rule

July 22, 2014 am31 11:14 am

But one decision, one rule, I kept. Almost. I decided not to go into my school.

When my sabbatical was approved, May of 2013, I had to make some decisions about the school year that just passed.

I chose an institution to take courses, and then I changed, and then I partially changed again. And I changed classes along the way. They were still, mostly, graduate level math classes. Just not the ones I had originally planned on, nor at the institution I had thought was perfect.

I decided to travel every other weekend. And while I did travel, and a lot, it wasn’t close to every other weekend.

I decided to visit schools and watch math classes. I figured I would get to 2 or 3 dozen. The visits were harder to arrange than I thought, and I ended up visiting fewer than 20 schools.

But one decision, one rule, I kept. Almost. I decided not to go into my school. Not to drop by. Not to say hi. Not to speak to a chapter meeting. Not to discuss administrative items with my principal. Never.

I cleaned out my personal items on June 26, 2013, so I wouldn’t have an excuse to “just drop by” for something.

There was excitement (not in the positive sense of the word) over the new evaluation system. Teachers wanted my input. They got it via e-mail. Or in person in bars or restaurants. I wasn’t going in.

The principal occasionally wrote to me, apologetically asking a question. He knew I was really disconnecting. He did not ask me to come in.

This winter a student was making a documentary film for class about specialized high school admissions (my school is a specialized high school.) Several of the teachers in my school worked on a UFT committee (organized by VP Janella Hinds) examining ways to improve specialized high school admissions – and I co-chaired the committee. And he wanted to interview me, and I wanted to grant the interview. But I arranged it in a college library, close to our school. I wasn’t going in.

My principal received papers, important to my sabbatical (eventually) and offered them to me if I dropped by. I asked him to hold on to them. I wasn’t going in.

I was really, really good.

And then the new contract proposal hit in May. And one of the co-acting-chapter leaders asked me to come in. I declined. And then another chapter member. And then another. And when I had my fifth request, from a chapter of just 25, I broke down. May 23, I came in and ran two Chapter meetings. And then I met with my designee and the principal about possible schedule options, assuming the contract went through. June 2 I came back, ran an after school chapter meeting to discuss schedule options. And while I’ve been in touch, at a distance, I did stop by twice after school ended – once to follow up on some questions, and once to collect copies of sabbatical-related material (I’m turning in my sabbatical papers today).

I guess this rule, not going in, this one rule was a really good one, as long as I kept it. Once I broke it once, it kind of broke down.


There are ATRs in New Haven?

July 20, 2014 pm31 10:52 pm

Not exactly, but something like it.

Because of “Turnaround” – adopted in a 2010 Weingarten/reform contract – there is a group of “displaced teachers” every year – who will have a job, but have to find the placement themselves. And because “turnaround” comes with stigma (it’s schools in poor areas that have it done to them, but they are labeled as failing), teachers leaving those schools tend to be shunned.

The story comes from the New Haven Independent.

It also quotes union leader Dave Cicarella, on an interesting, different, note. New Haven adopted a five stage teacher evaluation system in 2010, before NYC’s H, E, D, I system. People I know there said that the dramatic change was not in the number of people scoring the lowest, and in danger of losing their jobs, but that principals had discretion over the difference between a 3 and a 2, and being able to punitively push teachers who spoke up into a “teacher improvement plan” which is apparently a miserable experience.

Before then, Cicarella said, “we had a ridiculous evaluation system” that involved nothing more than “a couple of drive-by” observations of teachers. As in most of the country at that time, teachers were rated on a binary system, either effective or ineffective.

New Haven was one of the first districts nationwide to start grading teachers on student performance—a trend that has now spread nationwide, prompted by federal pressure from the Obama Administration’s competitive grant programs and No Child Left Behind Act waivers. The initiative is based on the premise that the most important factor in a kid’s education is the quality of the teacher—and that that quality can be measured.

His response to principals: “Why don’t you tell your colleagues to do their job?”

If principals are using the teacher evaluation system properly, he argued, they should be working hard to help low-performing teachers improve—and firing them if they don’t. The teachers contract allows a principal to fire a tenured teacher after one year if he or she scores on the bottom of the five-point evaluation scale, and after three years if he or she fails to improve to “effective,” a three out of five. The system requires schools to give teachers plenty of notice: They have to warn teachers in November if they are on track to score on the bottom, or top, of the evaluation scale.

So here we have a new five point scale, and the reformers complain that not enough teachers get fired and blame the union. Sounds like the same complaints we’ve heard in the past about the S and U system, and about tenure. In fact, the problem is the complaint itself, and it would be nice if more AFT locals stood up and said so, rather than trying to mollify the reformers.

And, as Cicarella inadvertently points out, HEDI, 54321, S and U, all rely on good administrators. And the lack of good administrators is something we should be looking much closer at.

Sabbatical? Take one if you can

July 17, 2014 pm31 11:59 pm

My sabbatical is winding down. A full year of classes, travel, visiting schools, and no teaching.

I turned 50, hiked to Machu Pichhu, studied cryptography.

I am relaxed and healthier.

Over the next month and a half I will tell some sabbatical stories in this space.

But for now, I’m worried about one particular story: yours.

If you are eligible, you should do this. The time is amazing. The stress on the job is too great. The opportunity to learn is wonderful. And the time to do other things is too.

What are you waiting for?  You need to be in your fourteenth year when you apply.

The DoE memo comes up in February. They leave you a window of about two weeks to get the application in. It’s not enough time… so start way before February. There are UFT workshops afterschool in each borough in the fall. Attend. Figure out where you are going to take courses. Use last year’s memo as a template. Figure out some likely courses. They need to be rigorous and job related. And the majority (you’ll need a total of 16 credits) have to be at times that you would otherwise be teaching.

Money?  You still get 70% of your pay. After taxes, that’s a lot less of a cut than most people expect. If even that is too much, you can cut TDA for a year (but I don’t like the sound of that). Plus the year still counts towards pension. Find a way to tighten the belt a little, if you have to. But no excuses.

Many UFTers think that sabbaticals no longer exist. Wrong. Think that most applications get rejected. Wrong. Think they can’t afford one. Wrong.

So stop making excuses – get ready for the February application. You won’r regret it.

Saying hello and goodbye to Tucson in one breath

July 16, 2014 am31 10:40 am

I arrived in Tucson, and I am leaving.

I spent last weekend in Los Angeles, at the American Federation of Teachers Convention. Instead of heading straight home, I detoured east by southeast into the Gadsden Purchase.

With my luck, the flight in Monday was delayed. And the great rate I got from Thrifty? It didn’t come with an actual car.

I got to my hotel (nice spot, Lodge on the Desert, big room, fireplace – well, fake, but I think it’s one of those gas jobs – balcony, comfy, clean… it’s a bunch of two-story buildings around a restaurant, bar, and pool) I got to my hotel around midnight, and slept in Tuesday.

More luck, Tuesday there was a morning storm, and it continued. Lightening, and on and off bursts of rain. But the natives seemed to like it, and told me it would be fine to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and it was. Dips in the road were filling with water, and I’d been warned twice to be very careful. I’d also been advised of the “Stupid Motorist Law” which says that if I drive into a puddle that turns out to be much bigger than that, and need to be rescued – I pay the cost.

The Museum was like a massive nature center / botanical garden. They had an amazing variety of cacti, and the creosote plants (not creosote) scented the drizzly air, and the steel grey sky provided an awesome backdrop. There were animal exhibits, plant exhibits. There was a walk-in aviary, and a walk-in aviary for hummingbirds. I must have stepped in the wrong spot, because one buzzed my head a few times. There was geology, and paleontology. And it got hot when the sun finally came out, but I had already spent hours there. It was absorbing, and entrancing, though perhaps not amazing.

2014-07-15 13.01.51 2014-07-15 13.41.36-2 2014-07-15 14.09.36 2014-07-15 14.08.49 2014-07-15 13.59.55

The road took me over a little hill with an overlook back east over the City, and another on the other side, west. On the return trip, as I made it down the east side, I saw a cop with flashers. I slowed. A lot. He was guarding a boulder that had fallen in the road – the shape of a huge wheel of cheese, maybe two-and-a-half feet high, with about a six foot diameter. Another trap for stupid motorists.

In the evening I ate at the Tucson Tamale Company, which was ok. The young woman who helped me let me taste everything, and then even came over to the table to unwrap a tamale for me, and told me I looked way better (she should have said younger) than her mother. One Sonora, one vegan blue.

And then I found the house where my father lived his first few years. Pretty sure the building is not old enough, probably newer construction on the same site. The West University neighborhood was interesting.


Then a few laps in the pool.

And today?  Breakfast. The Pima Air and Space Museum. Connection to Phoenix. And an exit row from Phoenix to JFK.

AFT 2014 Convention – Monday

July 15, 2014 pm31 12:01 pm

1. Enough Press

This is (barring some odd tangent) my last AFT Convention post. Here’s the others: Friday – SaturdaySunday.

And yesterday was another busy “tweeting” day, well morning. If you are curious, here’s the handle once again: @jd2718x . My twitter account saw more action this weekend than in the previous three months. One Unity delegate (and full-timer) joked as I passed him on the way to the bathroom that I needed to get back up front and get back to work. Others noticed that I looked a bit tired (it really was a bit draining). And a Unity retiree who I know slightly, seeing the fatigue on my face, offered to make me her guest in two years. (I know I can register myself as a visitor, but it was a really nice gesture).

2. Ukraine

I’d been waiting for this. The AFT is famous for pro-war resolutions, and despite their protestations, their draft Ukraine resolution was another example. I heard, and this was at least a little heartening, that it had only squeaked out of committee by two votes. And I expected, despite the odds, a fierce debate.

Yesterday I wrote:

“the AFT has a long, ugly pro-war history (they were Kerryishly for the Viet Nam war before they were against it, a dozen years ago my local passed a blood-curdling “let’s invade Afghanistan, because we need to invade someone” resolution, and just four years ago the AFT passed a blueprint for justification of a war they clearly were hoping the US would launch against Iran). This time? Pro-war resolution on Ukraine. Look for it to pass, but in a hot debate.”

But a funny thing happened. There was some sort of agreement, and the Cold War reso was replaced by a substitute, introduced and strongly motivated by a math teacher, PSC-CUNY delegate Glenn Kissack. The substitute dropped support to the current Ukrainian government. It added opposition to IMF-imposed austerity. It added support for labor rights for Ukrainian teachers. The Whereas’s (preamble) in the substitute, among other things, pointed harsh fingers at the nationalist right wing parties, Right Sector and Svoboda. That was too much, Shanker Institute Administrator Leo Casey rose to swallow the new resolution, but asked to blank the entire preamble, and PSC-CUNY President Barbara Bowen generously agreed.

This was one of two places in the Convention where something better than what the leadership proposed was passed, and clearly the more important. (The other was getting a symbolic anti-Duncan resolution). The Ukraine resolution is not a resolution the State Department would be comfortable with. Excellent.

3. Speakers

Two speakers stood out on Monday – the NEA’s new president Lily Eskelsen García and the AFT’s new Executive Vice President, Mary Cathryn Ricker.

Lily Eskelsen García spoke plainly, and well. She struck good teacher chords, good labor chords, and was genuinely funny.

Best:  “When I die, I would like to die in a faculty meeting. The transition between life and death would be so subtle.”

But she hammered reformers, and testing, and sounded as militant as anyone who’d addressed the assembly.

I wasn’t taking notes when Mary Cathryn Ricker spoke. I had moved to the back, bag over my shoulder, watching my phone, waiting for my ride to call. But as I caught some of her words, my focus was pulled back to the stage (or the screens, I guess). She is from Minnesota, and had been involved with the St. Paul local’s militancy, and so it should have not been a surprise that it was a real labor speech, and kind of tough, and I know it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it was a good last note to AFT14.

4. Election Results

The Progressive Caucus (which binds many major locals to UFT/Unity, and loosely ties some others, prominently CTU and PSC-CUNY) won an overwhelming majority – on the order of 97-98% over perennial opposition BAMN. Of some interest, Mary Cathryn Ricker received the highest number of votes. More interestingly, while the vast majority of votes are slate votes, there are enough votes for individual vice presidents to see a difference – and indeed CTU and PSC-CUNY presidents Lewis and Bowen received more votes than any of the other vice presidents, outpolling the last VP by about twenty thousand weighted votes each.

5. And then?  I visited the La Brea Tar Pits and the Page Museum, had lunch in Little Ethiopa, and flew to Tucson for a day and a half of sightseeing – which I need to get started on!


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