Sunday, January 21, 2018

Will the Truth Out? A Strike May Be the Catalyst.

I collect masks. I think they are beautiful, but I only collect masks with open mouths. I like the metaphor, of course: we hide behind them, we use them to become someone else, but for me, an open mouth means these masks demand to be "heard." They need to look as if they are ready to speak, or are speaking, or singing aloud for me to want to hang them on the wall. I like a mask that nobody shuts down.

Mask are symbolically important, and "we," meaning everybody, wears them at times. Teachers wear them, in lots of contexts. We wear them when we are with parents. There's a thing a veteran teacher taught me when I was starting out-- the "teacher head cock." It goes like this. When the parent of a particulary challenging kid asks how their student is doing, you cock your head a minute, and smile. This gives you a second to catch your breath and think before you blurt out something too blunt. In those occasions before I learned it, the non-professional, human side of me wanted to say something like, "Yo, come get your kid! He needs to spend waaaaaaayyyyy less time on an ipad or in front of a screen at home and waaaaayyyy more time outside running around, and then in your lap with a book!" But then I mastered the teacher head cock. So, I would cock my head, smile, and say something like, "Well...Johnny has a lot of wonderful energy that we are working on harnessing toward his goals."

A mask, of sorts. Then there's the mask you wear when you write publicly about your life as an educator. You want to write as bluntly as you think, but to do so, you run the risk of exposing confidentialities of childrens' lives you are professionally and ethcially bound to protect. To state the obvious, those confidentialities must never be broken.

You also run the risk, as our District and union begin the last round of negotiations on January 23rd and 26th before a possible strike vote, of exposing things that could hamper negotiations. Here are a few things that are in the public domain, which I can discuss openly.

A strike means that almost 25,000 children will not be in school during the length of a standoff, which to my mind could and should have been prevented by the District. Some kids will have babysitters, or stay in warm, organized, food-stocked homes during that time, with activities and supervision. In many, many homes, this strike could cost so much more: the safety of kids, ultimately.

True, I'm a passionate union member, but the issues are common sense and should have been agreed to by the District a year and a half ago: pay new teachers the same as veterans, and not based on a silly scale that even the impartial arbiter found to be unfair. Pay Pre-K teachers, bound to have the same education and certifications as every other teacher, the same as every other teacher. Lower class sizes by 5 children so they can get better one-on-one instruction. Give coaches, who sacrifice time with their families, a raise. (They haven't had one in TEN YEARS.) Allow teachers to retain their voice in helping their principals make their teaching schedules, instead of erasing any voice or choice in who, what or when they teach.

Why does that last matter? Because a fifth grade science teacher has a K-5 certification, but might be an expert at dealing with pre-adolescents, and have spent years building their expertise and craft teaching scientific principles and discovery to this age group. A Kindergarten teacher quits, moves or gets rated out, so a capricious, inept or malicious Principal (news flash: THEY EXIST) moves this 5th grade science teacher to fill the Kindergarten hole in the schedule. What happens to the students who lose their expert science teacher? What happens to the Kindergarten children, who have one crack at Kindergarten, now faced with a well meaning, but inexpert teacher of this age group?

The problem might be with how our state certifies teachers. But that is outside of this union-District discussion. And everything these negotiations do must be focused on how it affects CHILDREN, first and foremost. When the District begins to authentically respect teachers enough to place them in decision making roles alongside those principals, you'll know that kids are being placed first and foremost. So much more to say there: but. Teachers are chronically afraid to speak out about what they think could improve in their schools for fear of backlash to their ratings, their schedules, etc. That's me stepping out from behind my mask. There. I did it.

You need to eat. You need to pay your bills. Most importantly, you need to keep going to a job that allows you to work with kids whose lives your life is entwined with. They have one shot at filling out FAFSAs, filling out college applications, writing college essays, choosing colleges they talk about the pros and cons with you about, checking out books that could change them forever,  having somebody to talk to alone about what the hell is going on at home and at work and with boys and/or girls with, writing great papers (maybe with your help), learning NOT to Google sources for papers, having a safe place every day at lunch to be with their friends when everywhere else is unsafe and scary, charge their phone, use the in-school food bank, create an in-school food bank, create committees and clubs and projects. You wear the God-damned mask you hate and that burns you up because you are in love with your students, and you need them as much as they need you.

"But," as Shakespeare said, "in the end, the truth will out." Eventually. If there is a strike vote, I predict that the union members will vote overwhelmingly for a strike. And then some teachers' masks will slip a little. You could hear stories teachers want to tell you about what holds our schools back from being as great as they can be, that we are afraid to share, for fear of backlash, retribution and unfair consequences. And that could be the best thing for public education in Pittsburgh that has happened in a long time. Because while masks can be protective, and necessary, they can also cloud truth. And only truth unmasked can begin to heal what is wrong.

In Solidarity.


  1. Very well said!! Thank you for sharing these thoughts. As a resident, I am very concerned with the state of the PPS. I hope that a strike can be avoided, but I agree that something needs to change within the system.

  2. Thank you, IonMoon. My hope is that a strike can be avoided, too. Our children need their schools open, and they need their teachers and classrooms. However, they also need their teachers to stand up for smaller class sizes, the best qualified and most talented coaches and staff who want to teach them, and at the right grade level. Teachers' interests in this case can not be separated from children's. Thank you very much for reading, and for caring.

  3. Why are comments being censored when they oppose Mrs. May-Stein's stance? The moderator has no interest in other opinions?