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Anticipating Fight Back Friday

One of the major reasons I became involved in educational advocacy work was because I saw the ways in which relentless focus on standardized testing was creating schooling environments that were less and less conducive to real learning. My first year I worked with a set of 30 or so 11th-graders who had struggled to pass the Regents math exam they needed to graduate; that test became my entire life as I struggled to find ways to prepare students whose math proficiency level was far below a ninth-grade level. I was successful with 28 of them, but not because I taught math in a way that made me proud. I thought constantly about ways in which I could make my classroom a more engaging learning environment where students could grapple with complex ideas, and while I was lucky to have a supportive administration I felt that so much of the broader direction in education reform was actually pushing education further from this ideal.

But as I have become more involved I now see that the problem is not just standardized tests. In fact, it seems that so much of the education reform agenda is not about creating engaging, enriching school environments but is instead about privatized management of schools that employ a non-unionized workforce and about attacking the very teacher protections that allow schools to be dynamic places where all staff can contribute opinions without fear of retribution. Tenure, for example, came into being so that teachers could not be fired by principals without due process. Tenure protects teachers who defend their departments from harassment, inform parents or DOE officials about negligence in their school, or who have personal or political disagreements with principals. Protections and contractual agreements make schools better places to work, which means lower teacher turnover, happier teachers and thus happier students in turn. A sign outside the capital in Madison, Wisc., last week made the case for teacher protections clear: “My Working Conditions Are My Students’ Learning Conditions.”

In response to the relentless attacks, Sam Coleman, a member of both the Grassroots Education Movement and NYCORE came up with the idea of supporting schools in organizing school-based actions for educators, parents and students across the city who wanted to push back. He named his intitiative Fight Back Friday. The idea also developed because there was an urgency for more actions at the local level, yet the UFT leadership seemed unwilling or unable to take on organizing of that kind.

On Friday, Jan. 21, members of my school community participated in our first Fight Back Friday. We joined parents, school staff and community members across the city to raise awareness about, and stand in solidarity with, schools facing closure and co-location votes at upcoming Panel for Educational Policy meetings. The theme for the day was “Wear Black and Take Our Schools Back.” Nearly all of my colleagues wore black on that day. It was an incredibly unifying experience that was better for staff morale than anything I could have anticipated. Over 30 schools have participated in Fight Back Fridays since the movement began last year. Each individual school’s action takes on a different tone depending on the particular concerns that are most pressing for that school, but they all heighten dialogue and raise awareness about critical issues facing education right now.

The next Fight Back Friday is planned for March 25, and it will focus on some of the most pressing issues facing public education. These include the devastation that would be caused by layoffs and budget cuts, plus the importance of teacher protections like tenure and seniority in making schools stable and rich environments for children. The message for the day is, “We are all Wisconsin! Same Struggle, Same Fight.” I have heard this sentiment, which refers to the battle against union rights started by Wisc. Gov. Scott Walker, expressed repeatedly from teachers in my school, and we have decided we don’t want to wait any longer to start educating our communities and mobilizing ourselves.

The truth is that parents, students, and all school workers have been feeling incredibly demoralized and my school is not unique in this sense. It’s depressing to hear so much focus on the “bad teachers” when it is such a tiny minority of us, and the focus on seeking out such teachers essentially amounts to witch hunts in some places. Teachers also feel like they have no voice in the conversation, and are finding themselves in heated debates with friends and family members who have taken in the general media sentiment that often lacks teacher voice. A friend recently had such a conversation in which her friend stated that he believed teacher unions, and many teachers in them, “don’t care at all about children.”

I know that I often feel like there is little that can be done on a personal level to stop the relentless attacks on schools, with the union leadership offering us little more than the suggestion to call or fax our elected officials. Fight Back Friday is an opportunity for school communities to take back the conversation surrounding education that is being pushed by the Gates Foundation and others who are trying to profoundly alter public education in ways that I do not believe will benefit students. Instead of making schools into socially just, enriching and rigorous learning environments, they would strengthen the focus on standardized tests, increase class sizes, and create school communities in which the very livelihood of teachers is dependent on the whims of a principal.

This is why participation in Fight Back Friday next week for my school community will be more than just wearing black. At the end of the day we’ll have signs and picket across the street from school while wearing stickers that say things like, “I’m wearing black to stop ALL layoffs” or “I’m wearing black because teacher protections protect children.” We’ll have informational leaflets to hand out explaining how the attacks here in New York City are much like those in Wisconsin: They are part of a national effort to weaken public sector unions and public services such as education. I’m excited because Fight Back Friday will also offer us the rare chance to have conversations with each other and with members of the local community about the issues facing our school system. I’m looking forward to those conversations, and to standing together with the members of my school community.

Politicians who are pushing for corporate-oriented reforms and are lobbying against teachers and their unions, whether it is Walker in Wisconsin or Bloomberg in NYC, have ideas about education for our children that do not align with what most parents want for their kids, nor what many teachers know is right for their students. It is time for the people to stand up and fight back in a way that creates a visible, mobilized and educational response to these attacks.

Email Sam Coleman for more information, or to get resources and register your school as participating in the upcoming Fight Back Friday on March 25.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.