Thursday, December 3, 2015

Powerful Truths

In Elementary School, I was an avid reader, just as I am today.  In Fifth grade, I discovered an entire shelf of books in the school library that was filled with biographies of notable women.  I made it my mission to read every one of those biographies.  I devoured them like candy.  I couldn't get enough of reading about the lives of women like Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Laura Ingalls Wilder and other amazing, intelligent females who made an impact on history and society in their own way.  

Today, my reading is just as avid, but I tend toward historical fiction and stories of strong women.  I realized that I tend to gravitate toward those stories, when I was thinking about the impact of the women who were being honored last night at the Workforce Development Institute's 2016 Calendar Release Reception.  What a powerful group of ladies who, through their work in their unions and in their community have and continue to make a difference in the lives of workers and families.  I pale in comparison to many of these ladies.  I aspire to be like them, with so many accomplishments and roles that they take on.  I was honored to be in their company last night.  

NYSUT has a membership that is over 70% female.  We dominate the workforce in education and related fields.  Collectively, this is a group of super smart women who, when they work together, are a force to be reckoned with.  This is why I find what is happening within our own ranks so distressing.  Our membership is starkly divided on many issues.  Even worse, much of our membership remains ignorant of what is happening within their own profession.

In my family, I have individuals who are far right and those who are far left on politics.  I tend toward the middle.  As a Libra, I am always trying to find balance so I try to consider all angles before making a decision or taking a stand.  Within our membership, both locally and statewide, we have individuals who are polar opposite in their opinions.  This contributes to lively discussions and to opportunities to see all sides of issues.  However, we must bear in mind these simple words:  United We Stand.  Divided We Fall.   

I have found over my years in the workforce that organizations that are predominately women often have a tendency to undermine each other rather than foster leadership and growth in each other.  

While we may not see eye to eye on all issues, we need to keep in mind a few simple truths:

1. We are in this for the children, ours and those belonging to others.  We must collectively agree to work toward a better free public education system that is lead by educators, not politicians or business people.

2. As women, we should work together to foster leadership and growth amongst our ranks.  We need to stop tearing down our colleagues who show an ability to do more.  Instead, we need to set aside the "popularity" issues and personal feelings for the better of the organization as a whole.  One of my favorite quotes is, "You can tell who the strong women are.  They are the ones you see building one another up, instead of tearing each other down."

3. Divide and conquer is an effective strategy that has been used in battle many times.  If we become divided, we are weakened.  We are stronger together.  In our unity we will find strength.

4. All relationships are compromises, from marriages to businesses.  We must show maturity and realize that compromises sometimes need to be made.  We can't have it all, but we can have most if we work together.

As women, as mothers, as educators, we must learn to stand together.  We have an obligation to our society, our families and our profession to be informed and to create change.  We are a force to be reckoned with, not just on our own, but even more powerfully, together.  Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize winning American History Professor, said it best:  "Well behaved women seldom make history".  

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Struggle is Real

Make no mistake about it.  We are in a struggle.  Not the kind of struggle that involves armored vehicles, automatic weapons and stealth fighter planes.   It is struggle over the existence of Public Education as an important component of our country.  Actually, it goes deeper than that.  This is not just a war on our public school system which is being dismantled right before our eyes, but it is also a struggle against the people who populate our public unions.

Specifically, this is a war on Public Employees, the vast majority of whom are women.  Women make up the largest percentage of public school teachers, many of whom, due to the recent recession, are their families largest or even primary breadwinners. The National Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 58% of the workforce in our country is female.  Of that, 82% are Elementary and Middle School Teachers with a total of all women in education related professions at 72%.  These are women, who often have Master's degrees and beyond, provide health care and significant portions of their family's income.  Women who chose to teach, rather than pursue private employment because they love teaching and understand that the lower income is off-set by a pension later on and a true desire to contribute to society through their chosen profession.

The attack on our public school teachers, our public health care workers, and our public employees is an attack on women in our society.  Now, before you think this is crazy, consider this:  Is our state attacking our private industry unions with as much intensity and vehemence as they are towards the public unions?  Is the case before the Supreme Court (Freidrichs vs. California Teachers Association) targeted toward public employees (although it opens the door to removing the rights of private sector workers as well)?  Are charter schools being vilified the same way public schools are?  The answers are No, no and NO.

Why are we attacking the very people who are caring for our children and our community?  And not just any children... all children.  Public schools accept ALL children.  Teachers and others who work in public schools have no say over who is in their classrooms, how many students they get, what they are teaching and what, if any, support they get while teaching.  Teachers in public schools teach ALL children who walk through their doors.  These teachers have been known to spend thousands of dollars of their own money to outfit classrooms so that students have everything they need to learn and be successful.  These same teachers purchase clothing, Christmas gifts, food, glasses, boots and school supplies for the children they teach.  These women and men spend hours and hours of their personal time preparing for students, corresponding with parents and completing paperwork.  Most importantly, they come to school daily with a smile for the kids.

Why are our Public Employees being attacked?  The answer is both simple and complex.  Money.  It's all about the money.  The war on Public Education was never about the kids.  NEVER.  Not for one single second.  The war on Public Employees is a war on the middle class in America.  It is a war on the progress women have made in becoming economically independent.  It is a war on those of us who work hard and demand fair wages and benefits.  Women in our country make approximately $.79 on the dollar compared to their male counterparts nationwide.  In Right to Work States, that gap is even wider.

According to a recent publication by the AFL-CIO  in Right to Work states, wages are at least 12.2% lower ($5,971 less), more workers are without health insurance, poverty levels are higher and there is a 31% decrease in Education spending.  For women, this will be even more pronounced.  Teachers who work in public education make significantly more than teachers who work in Charter schools.  Charter schools tend to be non-unionized and have lower wages, longer hours, less protections and higher turnover rates.  Women are already affected by the gender gap and this disparity will increase if the Supreme Court allows all states to become RTW.  The case before the Supreme Court has quietly been "fast-tracked" in hopes of a desired outcome by those underwriting the case.  Do not be fooled that those organizations and individuals are not the least bit concerned about the teachers who they represent.  Breaking the Public Sector unions opens up ways to make for money for the private sector, i.e.: the privatization of prisons, water & sewer, police and fire services, to name just a few.

Keeping our public sector unions strong has far reaching effects on our communities and women in our workforce.  A strong economic package leads to a prosperous workforce that will participate in a democratic society.  Public sector unions represent a promising path for working women towards equality and economic security.  For the well-being of working women along with their families and communities, the health of public sector unions must be protected.

Ask yourself:  What kind of society are we if we continue to erode the rights of ordinary citizens who have dedicated their lives to public service?  What will happen if we allow the privatization of public services?  What will happen if we erode the organizations that protect worker's rights and a path towards fair wages and working conditions?

We need to fight to protect those essential public services that provide for a quality standard of living and the true meaning of democracy.  We are in a serious struggle.  We need to fight to maintain and expand what makes our society a just democracy for all our citizens.

Update:  This blog post was published on the Daily Public website!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Silence Isn't Always Golden

It is said that "Silence is Golden".  At times, yes, silence can be a lovely thing.  But, it is not golden when silence is a result of intimidation, fear and an attempt to silence a voice.  When we are silenced into compliance, there is something very wrong.  Intimidation is a form of emotional abuse.  When a person is afraid to speak the truth or give voice to concerns, then they are being manipulated into compliance.  I see this all the time and it infuriates me.  

At the State level, teachers are being silenced from voicing their concerns.  First, there is the farce of the Common Core Survey.  It is lengthy, standard specific and worded in a way that teachers cannot voice their true concerns.  It is nearly impossible to finish in one sitting.  It also comes with a notification that NYSED can view where you visited online prior to taking the survey.  The intent of the survey is to "tweak" the standards, not get rid of them or to involve real, live educators in the process of writing standards and benchmarks that are appropriate.  Early results are already being manipulated to say that "over 70% want to keep the standards".  Intimidation.  Who wants to take a survey where they can spy on your website visits, take up gobs of precious time, answer questions that are standard specific and then make sure that the outcome is already decided?  Not me. I know the standards and I don't want to be bogged down in that #shitshow for hours on end.  I can't imagine how the average parent feels, but I can guess they may feel intimidated.

If the survey isn't bad enough, we have the Common Core Task Force (AKA The Listening Tour).  How convenient that they hold meetings at times that are inconvenient for parents and teachers to attend.  How about the rumors that they have "plants" there to sing the praises of Common Core and have seats reserved for people who don't show so that it limits the audience?  Best of all, they wait to announce the time and location until just prior, making it harder to find childcare and adjust schedules.  Intimidation.  

It's no better on the local level either.  Teachers have been warned about speaking about the OptOut movement.  We have been reminded that our facebook pages can be checked.  We are careful about conversations with colleagues out of fear.  We are being watched, monitored and checked on.  We are even getting our own version of the Listening Tour, which is turning into a carefully scripted affair where only certain people are supposed to speak.  Intimidation

Personally, I know what it is like to be intimidated into being silent.  I know what it is like to emotionally abused.  I see how voices are being silenced.  I see teachers who are too bogged down in all the new curriculum and data collection to take the time to speak.  I see teachers who are afraid to veer off script and allow the kids a moment of fun for fear that an administrator may walk in and check the learning targets.  I know of teachers who are reprimanded for speaking their minds, voicing their concerns about the time expectations, developmentally inappropriate materials and practices, amount of testing and the stress that is being placed on their students.  I hear of teachers who are physically ill as a result of the stress that is being placed on them.  

Silence is not golden.  
Silence is compliance.  
Silence is what got us here in the first place.  
Silence must not prevail.  

Saturday, November 7, 2015


As teachers, our "year" begins in September with the start of a new school year instead of in January with the start of the calendar year.  So every September, I make a resolution for my "year".  This year, I resolved to practice yoga at least 3 times a week.  I found a studio and began my practice.  Yoga has helped me to bring clarity and peace to my mind over the past 2 months and, like all good classes, has taught me something.

As I began my practice on the mat this morning, I realized how powerful this is.  Although I had dabbled in yoga on and off over the past few years, I hadn't really committed myself to it.  When I began practicing again, I was at a distinct disadvantage.  I really had no knowledge of the vocabulary used, the poses or the routines.  I was out of shape and struggling.  The instructors were wonderfully helpful and encouraging.  They gently coaxed me into poses and kept reminding all of us that our practice is individual and that no one's practice is like anyone else's.  They encouraged all of us to do what we could.  Over the past few weeks, I came to understand that my yoga practice is a journey and not a marathon.  Each time I enter a pose it is different, possibly better, and uniquely my own.

As I meditated on the mat this morning before class began, it occurred to me the parallels between how we should be teaching our students and what it means to practice yoga.  When teaching children we need to begin with a solid foundation and slowly build upon that foundation with each lesson and each day tweaking that learning.  Education is a journey, not a marathon.  As humans we learn throughout our lives.  Each experience, each day, each event adds to our learning.  We retain learning when it is grounded in our foundation.

In today's education reform, we are presenting information to children that is far too advanced for their development and foundation.  We no longer teach letter and number formation, spelling, what it means to add and subtract and how to listen before we are teaching writing paragraphs, commutative properties of addition and subtraction and taking reading tests.  This is the inherent problem in our current "college and career ready" push.  The curriculum has been "back-mapped" instead of being built from the bottom up with an understanding of developmental levels.  We are pushing little children to be "college and career ready" before they have even lost their baby teeth.

In my yoga class, each pose helps to build a foundation for more complicated or challenging poses.  Hip openers, shoulder openers and stretches all help us get ready for back bends, inversions and other poses.  In our classrooms, we must do the same.  In the primary grades, we need to lay the groundwork for future learning.  If we are spending all our time on the complex tasks and testing, we are shortchanging our students of the foundation they deserve and require.  We must support and scaffold that learning all while remembering to honor the children for who they are.

As we work through each of the poses in yoga, there are built-in "shavasanas" or rest periods that allow the body to absorb the stretching and learning.  In education, we need to do that too.  Children cannot sustain long periods of learning.  There need to be breaks, or shavasanas, to help them absorb the learning.  Time off is necessary just as is time to play and time to relax and just be.  Recess is important as is time to socialize and time to be with family and friends.

At the end of every yoga class, we end with a shared "Namaste".  Essentially, this means:  The Light in Me Honors the Light in You.  This is the most essential lesson that we must remember in Education.  We absolutely must honor the light in every child.  Each one is unique and each child has value.  We must honor their journey through their learning and remember that their journey is uniquely their own.

Friday, November 6, 2015

If You Can't Say Something Nice...

The comment by "Joe" on my recent article in the Buffalo News stung the first time I read it.  Ouch.  He believes that children are sent to school to "survive in our current times" and that the only responsibility that teachers have is to "TEACH".  Ah, Joe, if only that were so.  In fact, for many of our students, it is the exact opposite, just as it is for teachers.

Many of our students come to school because it is a safe haven from "surviving" out in the current world.  The world where they have limited food, love, time and safety.  School is a safe place because it is predictable and the the adults are caring and loving towards them, even when they act out.  Food is available to them as is basic medical care and much more.  Teachers I know have provided clothing, shoes, eyeglasses, school supplies and holiday gifts to their students all in an effort to better the children's lives.

And... let's be honest, if the job for teachers was just to "TEACH", well that would be easy.  You would plan a lesson, execute it and move on.  Simple.  But the job of a teacher is so much more complex no matter what age level you teach.  Teachers are also counselors, therapists, nurturers, advocates, nurses, parents and so much more.  In any given day we take on many roles for our students to meet their needs.  As our "current world" becomes so much more complicated, so do our jobs.  Our students come to us needing so much more, even if they come from "good" homes.  Time is limited and resources are at times scarce.  Teachers fill the gaps as best as they can in between teaching lessons.

If my job was to simply teach, I would be able to disconnect at the end of the day.  Instead I go home and worry about my little ones who need more.  I also go home and talk about my littles ones, like a proud momma.  They are close to my heart for the entire time they are in my charge.  If I could simply teach, it would be much easier.  My job is so much more and I do believe that I am not alone in the way I feel about teaching.  I work with an amazing staff in the district and in my school.  Every one of them goes above and beyond for their students.  I have never heard a teacher complain about their salary.  In fact, I have never heard a teacher say that they are in it for the money.  Mostly what I hear is the frustration that we are being expected to do so much with so little time and resources.  Teachers naturally want to do more, but we want to be understood too.

"Joe"'s comment was very typical of those who truly do not understand what is happening in schools. Unfortunately those voices are often louder than teachers' voices.  In today's education climate, teachers are afraid to speak out and to defend themselves.  Maybe it is because we are nice people or are more comfortable speaking to children than adults.  I don't know.

I do know this, however, I will continue to speak out.  I will continue to be a voice.  I will continue to believe that schools are amazing places and that teachers do amazing things.  I will continue to be all I can for my little ones.  And "Joe"... well, maybe he needs to teach for a week or two.  Or maybe he just needs a hug.

Monday, October 19, 2015

An Awesome Responsibility

As an Elementary School teacher, one of my many daily duties is Bus Duty.  EVERY DAY.  In all kinds of weather.  It's crazy, loud, chaotic, semi-organized and overwhelming.  As a primary grade teacher, I have to be in three places at once:  escorting my walkers to their parents out the backdoor, picking up kindergartners for my bus line at the opposite end of the school and bringing them to the bus line even further away and supervising the bus line in a totally separate location.  It's fast and furious. And everyday, as we escort these children out the doors to waiting parents and to buses, I am awestruck at what is happening.  You see, it really drives home what we as teachers are doing.

When students arrive in the morning, we are at our doorways or in our rooms and we attend to our assigned students (also known as "our kids"), but at the end of the day, we are in charge of ALL the kids.  When you see the kids coming out the doors, chatting with each other, greeting or saying goodbye to teachers and sometimes hugging teachers, you realize what an amazing place a public school is.

I work in an increasingly diverse school.  Every year we get more children who are immigrants or refugees and every year our poverty level grows as more families struggle.  These children are OURS.  At bus duty you see the ratio of students to adults.  You see how much they love their teachers and how much the teachers care about these kids.  You also see what an awesome responsibility it is to have these children in our care.  These children are someone's babies.  These children have been entrusted to us, for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, 10 months a year.  These children's parents have trusted us enough to send us what they cherish the most.  They trust that we are not only educating their children, but also protecting them, advocating for them and loving them.

Teachers know this.  Those of us who are parents are entrusting our babies to teachers too while we take care of other peoples' children.  We know how powerful this is.  This is why, although we love what we do and we love our students, our hearts are quietly breaking.  Teachers understand what education reformers and many administrators and State Education officials do not.  We understand that these beautiful children are not scores, data points or part of some bizarre VAM formula.  We know that rigor and grit have no place in classrooms.  We know that these children are so much more than test scores, rankings and data.  We know that we are not in education to help children prepare for tests or non-existent or yet to exist "college and career readiness".  What we know is that we are growing people, humans, citizens of our nation and our world.  Along with  teaching the curriculum, we are teaching children to be kind, to love, to learn, to be curious, to question and to become better people.

It is breaking our hearts that these children, who trust us and whose parents trust us, are being used as weapons against us.  Their scores determine our "effectiveness".  Scores on tests that are poorly designed and mean nothing.  Scores that are derived through some combination of voodoo magic, fairy dust and crystal balls.  Scores whose cut scores are changed and manipulated to create a narrative that our schools are failing.

Let me tell you, our schools are not failing.  Our schools are thriving, and thriving in spite of budget cuts, cut scores, terribly designed curriculum, nonsensical mandates and outrageous expectations.  Our schools are thriving because they are staffed by teachers who know what is important.  Our schools are thriving because in spite of it all, the teachers who work in our public schools accept and love all the children who walk in and out of our doors every day.

Update:  This post was reblogged by Diane Ravitch and the Buffalo News!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Thank You

Cultural Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s words have been proven over and over to be true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Once again, a small group of citizens did just that this past weekend.  Of course, small is a relative term, because it took many people with a common vision to do what we were able to do on May 16th.  A group of teachers from the Kenmore Teachers Association (KTA) worked together with First Book, NEA, NYSUT, the Steelworkers Local 135, the Western New York Area Labor Federation and the Clean Air Coalition to do what many thought was impossible.  We put brand new free books into the hands of hundreds of children who would not have had access to these books any other way.  The smiles on the children’s faces said it all.  Some little ones even sat right down on the floor and started reading or looking at the pictures.  Teenagers hugged their books and smiled as they left. Teachers cried as they described how they couldn’t wait to get to school on Monday and give their students these books and how this would impact their classrooms.

Giving children books is a powerful tool in achieving authentic literacy. Learning to read is critical to a child’s success in school and in life.  A child without access to books won’t have the opportunity to become an engaged and capable reader.  This is the reality for so many children in our community.  Today, many parents work two jobs to make ends meet, so purchasing books is not a priority. Teachers know just how important it is for children to have books in their homes that they want to read. Partnering up with First Book was a natural extension of how teachers affect students beyond the classroom.  Partnering up with our local trade unions was an incredibly effective way to directly put books into the hands of kids.

At a time when the focus of education is heavily bent toward data and accountability, we have lost sight of the joy of watching children read and learn to love books.  It seems too that we have lost sight of the impact that our teachers and our organized labor forces have on our communities in Western New York.  We are fortunate to have such dedicated people who are able to work together for the betterment of neighborhoods and our children.

It is said that the devil is in the details, but I believe the beauty is in the details. Over the course of several months, this “small” project grew and took on a life of its own.  The combined effort to support literacy and to bring books to kids created a situation where our professional union worked with local trade unions and other groups of committed community organizers to make giving away over 5,000 books a reality.  I am in awe of these people and the capacity of organized labor. It was the structure and framework inherent in unions along with the networking capability and the belief in solidarity as an organization that made this possible.  Our communities depend on these efforts to be strong and viable.  Without our union members and our commitment to our neighborhoods and our districts, we lose more than we gain. Saturday was an example of the value of unions and how a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”.  We changed the world of many children in a way that can’t be quantified. 

I want to thank everyone who was a part of making this happen: 

KTA Board Members and LAP team members: Peter Stuhlmiller, Elaine Altman, Cheryl Hughes, Joi Chimera, and Bill Conrad.  Without your support, your efforts and your belief that we could make this happen, I don’t know how we could have done this.  You are all my heroes.

Richard Lipsitz, President of the Western New York Area Labor Federation:  You have been a cheerleader for this project.  Thank you for your efforts to connect us to the Steelworkers and the Clean Air Coalition along with other area labor organizations.

Rebecca Newberry of the Clean Air Coalition:  You have also been a cheerleader for this project and have gone out of your way to help get the word out.  You are amazing and I am in awe.

Tom O’Shei, President of the Steelworkers Local 135 and the rest of the members:  Thank you for donating your people and your building to our project.  You all went above and beyond to make this a success. 

Leslie Getzinger from AFT and Katie Donlieve from First Book: You ladies are incredible and we are looking forward to continuing our work with you as we get the remaining 16,000 books into Western New York.

The Volunteers:  Kenmore West Rugby Club who helped unload the truck, Kara Zuccari, Penny DiPasquale, Shawn Bartel, Colleen Carney, Wesley Brown, Dan Dudley, Elaine Korczykowski, MaryLynn Bieron, Aiden Bieron, Lucinda Farrauto, Lynne Akin, Sharon Shultz, Kathy Reiser, Debbie Peters, Lisa Mitchell, Amy Grosofsky, Katie Wood, Tom Perryman, Becca Lambert, Grace Morrison, Jeanette Yoder, Mike Fiels, Eric Ridgeway, Elaine Smith, Cali Smith, Jerry Smith, Andrew Gianni, Tracy Spagnolo and many others whose names I missed:  You gave from your heart and worked so hard.  Words cannot express my gratitude.

Most importantly, my daughter Hannah and my husband Carl Falletta: you support me in so many ways.  Thank you for creating doing the Child Safe ID’s from the Erie County Sheriff’s Department for so many children today.  Thanks for being my biggest fans.  I love you both.