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Does a new president make a difference?

November 21, 2009 am30 10:34 am

This is about the United Federation of Teachers, not the United States. And I’ve started writing this post four or so times since July. Each time would have been different.

In July I would have said that both the old and the new presidents were chosen by the same caucus, so while they look different, there wouldn’t really be much difference. Oh, symbolically a good move putting a teacher in charge.

By the end of August I would have sounded the same tune, but with a little refinement. The new guy has a straightforward way of speaking; you get the sense that you don’t need to run his words through some sort of filter to figure out what he really means. I don’t think I’d have said ‘blunt,’ but certainly ‘direct.’ And he seems to have a better sense of the sentiment in the schools. (Even if that doesn’t translate into policy, it does translate into empathy – and that matters).

After the September DA I would have concentrated on stylistic differences, but ones that I think matter. Meetings start on time? This is going to change how I’ve done business since I first became a delegate.  It’s a little annoying to need to adjust, but the positive, having my time, our time, treated respectfully, that is much greater. And it was shocking after all these years. The auditorium buzzed with surprise as the meeting started. And then there was the way he handled questions/complaints:  when a delegate in deep left field objected to the debate and vote being held while other delegates were standing outside the room, the president just asked them to come in. And then asked staffers to give up seats to delegates. The objection was angry, but the response was calm and respectful. And there was another round of muttering: this was a teacher running a room, and running it fairly well. Not to say there wasn’t unfairness here and there, or mistakes here or there. But 1) this is a huge meeting, and it is tough to get everything right, and 2) anything that was wrong was no worse than what we had before, and 3) a whole lot was better.

October’s DA didn’t change what we saw, but confirmed the style stuff. He handled disagreement in the same way. It looked like his disarming “How are you today?” had become a fixture. Side note: I know it uses up precious time, but I enjoy the reaction, from those who are shocked (how can you be shocked, he asks everybody) to those who pause and answer thoughtfully. He doesn’t get mindless “fine thank you”s in response. Now, he was wrong on the Thompson debate, his whole caucus was. The first time I saw him get flummoxed was when someone tried to call the question before he’d had a chance to call on a Brooklyn CL with prepared comments, but his predecessor handled the same problem in the same way loads of times. And when he went for a pro-Thompson comment and a delegate made a marginally relevant speech instead, he looked for another pro-Thompson comment. Extremely fair (there, unfortunately, was not precedent for such a fair move.) So he let some discussion run, and he kept a good tone in the room. I wanted to write then, but hesitated. I was pretty sure that what we were seeing was real. But after just two DAs….

So I’m leaving out this week’s DA, saving some of that for another post. And I’ve concentrated on style. And on style alone, big improvement. The DA’s are manipulated? Sure. Like before? Not even close. Is our time being better used? Yes. Has the level of respect risen? Absolutely. These things are real, and they matter. And now – and I’ll add in some November stuff – now most of us sense that these changes are real. It’s a small change in culture, and it is completely welcome, completely positive.

But does this translate into changes in the work of the union? Are there other changes going on as well? Policy? Follow through? Practice?

We need to come back to this.


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