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Staying on Message

September 20, 2021 pm30 11:53 pm

“We’ve got this” “we will figure out/ we figured out remote” “we will lead the way back to in person” “schools/teachers/NYC/NY State will lead the way” “We are reopening NYC”

The “we”? New York City public school teachers. Me. Probably you. Other public school workers.

The authors? The United Federation of Teachers “communication shop.” Reporters. Media people.

And they have done an excellent job staying on message. Versions of the message came out even as schools were closing March 2020. They kept running through the spring and summer, and into last school year.

“We got this” “We are reopening NYC” represents a UFT officer’s marketing campaign that does not speak to teachers, and is frankly, alienating.

Here’s the thing. Some teachers don’t love this message. It wasn’t, I don’t think, designed for us. It is a media play, a press strategy, a public relations campaign.

Since Wednesday I have opened almost every conversation with a teacher the same way. “I love being in the classroom. Zoom? Never. I won’t go back. But being in school, in the hallway, around so many people, with so many safety questions – I am stressed and exhausted like never before” And the responses – teachers are relieved that I get it, that I am articulating it, that someone understands what they are experiencing. They open up. They appreciate the empathy.

Which is what is missing from the UFT statements.

Today’s e-mail

Today de Blasio increased testing from 10%, only of unvaxxed, and only if they agree, from once every other week, to once a week. A little better. But still inadequate. There needs to be a lot more, and more frequent.

de Blasio also dropped quarantining requirements further. Most students who may have been exposed to COVID in school will remain in school.

A small win and a big loss. What did teachers talk about? The loss of quarantining. What did UFT Communications do? They put out an email “Mayor agrees to weekly COVID testing in schools”

They stayed on message. They are talking to the public (or whoever they think the public is). They are not addressing teachers.

The New York Teacher

In the latest “The New York Teacher” there is an article entitled “Bridging the post-pandemic learning gap“. It is not clear to me where the problems with this article originate. It is a Teacher Center piece, and Teacher Center values often align more closely with DoE values than teacher values. Or was this Mulgrew’s media folks? In either case “learning loss” is fictional stick that anti-public (school reform) advocates use to push their agenda and club teachers over the head with. And “Post-pandemic?” Is that where my union thinks we are? With masking and testing and quarantining. Well, maybe quarantining.

Can you imagine your reaction if someone walked up to you tomorrow and asked how you liked teaching post-pandemic?

Thanks to James Eterno for finding and publicizing that one.

Balloons and Confetti and Smiles

I just got another email today, that was addressed to me, but not really addressed to me. It was from Meisha Ross Porter. She was celebrating “Homecoming” and even mentioned a pom pom rally. These things happened and are happening – that is true. But a little flash doesn’t cover up the anxiety and stress we are feeling; the nervousness about safety, concerns about teaching through a mask; general angst about this very iffy year. Arthur calls this “toxic positivity” as he points his finger at the DoE’s deaf ear.

But read his blog a few days earlier, and what do you read? UFT Exec Board, and UFT Officers expressing a similar positivity. Keep to the message? Or speak directly to teacher needs, hopes, fears? Which was it? They kept to the message.

On Message, Not Talking to Us, a Year and a Half

After 18 months of this, people are getting used to it. And it really is 18 months. Here’s the first piece I wrote about an insulting Mulgrew email. Check the date – April 1, 2020. Schools had been out for less than three weeks.

And they continued, and continued. DoE, de Blasio, Cuomo directives were all shared with the members, mostly with fanfare, over Mulgrew’s signature. Many were followed by clarifying emails that walked back the tone, if not the content.

There’s a price to all this – maybe not a price to Mulgrew – but a price to you and me. The level of cynicism about the union (and most members see the leadership as the union. That’s not right, we, in the schools, are the union, or at least we should be. But that’s often the perception) – the level of cynicism about the union has never been this high. I hear distrust coming from people who’d never paid attention in the past. When something goes wrong, a significant number of our members now blame the UFT as their first assumption. I am very worried about the damage that’s being done.

Questions

Each one of these deserves in depth examination.

How did we end up with the “We got this.” “We are leading the way to reopen as quickly as possible” message? It was never put up for a vote, in any body AFAIK.

How much is the failure to empathize with teachers a problem of Unity Caucus? And how much does it belong to this current Communications Team, and their boss?

And how is this team different from previous teams?

To change the message entirely, or to drop it, that would probably require a change in leadership – and even if you think that the leadership should be changed – you probably know that that cannot happen until the end of the year, and that is unlikely to happen even then.

But what about modifying the message? Can the leadership elevate the concerns of members over the media/marketing messaging? Today’s email – how hard would have been to give it an appropriate title, and to put the issue that MEMBERS are worried about before the issue that the OFFICERS have focused on?

Am I wrong about this? Was there another time when the UFT’s President (and they were all Unity Caucus) failed to connect with members to this extent?

The End – For Now

So that’s it.

This last bit is for people who won’t read this, but I need to say it anyhow.

Tone down, or eliminate the marketing strategy. It is alienating members. Write the emails TO members, not for public consumption. Your primary audience should be US, teachers and other school workers.

Teachers are nervous and even scared. We never were trained for remote work, and survived a year with very little support, and we know it – and now we may have to do remote again. We are worried about safety. We are worried about lack of quarantines. We know that social distancing is not at the 3-foot level, and that worries us. Crowded hallways stress us. We do not trust the DoE to tell us when we are at risk.

Learn this for yourselves, if you don’t know it, and begin each conversation by acknowledging it. Show us some empathy.

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