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A new union of teachers forms over happy hours and Facebook

New York City’s teachers union likes to say that it speaks for all teachers. But two young teachers at a Bronx elementary school are starting an organization with a distinctly different point of view.

Both in their third year of teaching at P.S. 86 in the Bronx, Evan Stone and Sydney Morris started “Educators 4 Excellence” last month out of frustration with how their work is supported and evaluated.

One of their first battles will be against the state’s “last-in, first-out” law, which forces the city to lay off newer teachers in advance of their more experienced colleagues.

“We want it to be the ostensible solution to a lot of screaming on both sides,” said Stone, 25.

Only a few weeks old, the organization mainly exists though its website, which asks teachers to sign a petition in favor of repealing the last-in, first-out law. So far, the group has 520 fans on Facebook. The organization is  holding happy hour gatherings on Fridays, unconsciously modeling some of the United Federation of Teachers’ founders, who gathered for whiskey sours in Al Shanker’s one-bedroom apartment on Friday nights.

Educators 4 Excellence is also generating enthusiasm from more established advocates such as Democrats for Education Reform founder and board member Whitney Tilson.

Beyond advocating for the legislature to overturn the law — something Chancellor Joel Klein supports and the union strongly opposes — Stone and Morris said they want Educators 4 Excellence to become an independent think tank for teachers who want to overhaul how they’re evaluated and what’s done with that information. Part of that includes supporting merit pay and using students’ test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations.

For the moment, the organization is entirely unfunded and run by full-time teachers.

Stone and Morris, both of whom entered the classroom by way of Teach for America, said they spent their first two years catching their breath, and when their third year came around they felt settled and accomplished, but dissatisfied. Aside from getting a once-a-year rating of satisfactory or unsatisfactory, they didn’t know how well they were doing or how to improve, and they began to talk about leaving their school.

“Why are we thinking about leaving this job that we’re both pretty good at and is really rewarding for us?” said Stone. “We want to be pushed, we wanted to be evaluated, and we wanted someone to come into our classroom and tell us how to be better.”

One solution they discussed was going to work for a charter school, where they felt the likelihood of having a principal devoted to improving teaching would be higher, said Morris, 24. But that felt like a cop-out.

“I think charter schools are a necessary part of the solution, but for me to leave a traditional public school was almost in a way giving up on the students I’d been working with for the last three years,” Morris said.

Both maintain that the problem is not with their school’s administration or with the union as a whole, but with the policies dictated by state laws and teachers union contract.

“We’re not anti-union,” Stone said. “We’re big fans of the benefits that teachers get and we like the pensions and collective bargaining, but we also need to look out for the prestige of the profession.”