Commentary: “A More Transparent Union”

This is a guest commentary written by Viviana Sosa, a former LAUSD teacher, chapter chair, and House of Representatives member who joined the staff of Educators for Excellence Los Angeles  a little over a year ago:

                          Viviana Sosa

I grew up and went to school in South Los Angeles.  I became a teacher in the same types of schools I attended as a student. Despite being so intimately affected by public education, I felt totally removed from critical policy conversations happening in my district and union that shaped my profession and, in turn, the lives of my students.

A few years into my teaching career, I realized I needed to educate myself about the issues confronting my classroom. I began attending my schools’ union meetings, eventually ran for my union chapter chair and won a seat in UTLA’s House of Representatives—the governing body tasked with making decisions that affect all teachers and students in our district.

I thought that by participating in my union where policy is made and negotiated, I could ultimately impact the outcomes of my students. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

I needed to do more than simply engage with my union. I needed to change how we engaged other teachers.

While UTLA is an effective negotiator on behalf of teachers when it comes to collective bargaining, even our union leaders still employ a top-down approach to decision-making. There is little effort to foster conversation, debate and deliberation among members. As a result, teachers are disillusioned with and disengaged from the process that decides the fate of much of our day-to-day lives.

The UTLA’s latest tactic, a “No Confidence”  vote on Superintendent Deasy, is a case in point.

There has been little communication and a complete lack of information about the very reason for this vote. What’s more, members lack the necessary information to make an informed decision about the Superintendent for themselves, and are instead being fed an overtly political and consistently one-sided proposition: “Ten Reasons to Vote No on Deasy.”

This is not how we empower teachers and elevate our voices beyond the classroom – it’s the exact opposite. Teachers should be a part of the conversation, and ought to be informed about decisions that affect our classrooms, schools, unions and district. Yes, teachers have an obligation to educate ourselves about local issues and policy choices, but we all need access to information and a constructive space to discuss issues with fellow teachers.

Too often, union leadership is demanding that membership simply respond to policy initiatives, rather than help determine and shape them. Classroom teachers have an invaluable perspective, seeing on the ground how policies impact outcomes. Rather than asking teachers if the Superintendent should be fired, we should be asking teachers what issues and policies they want prioritized. Instead, we jumped three steps ahead. Teachers were blindsided with the vote of no confidence, given little context of its impetus, and given no perspective on how the vote would actually improve achievement – which is our ultimate goal.

The UTLA’s full-throttled push to force a vote against the Superintendent should serve as a wake-up call to teachers throughout the district.

Regardless of their individual views on the issue, we can all agree that the process did not engage teachers in a constructive dialogue about the priorities of our district. Instead, it forces teachers to choose a side: district or union. This distraction causes us to lose sight of the most important educational priority of all—our students.

But we have the power to change this. It’s time for individual teachers to step up and lead, both inside and outside the classroom. We need more competitive elections for school and union positions, and better communication among our peers. Even more importantly, teachers must do what we urge our students to do: ask questions, think critically and seek out information.

We cannot be afraid of debate or dissent – we should embrace it and create a dialogue about how we can elevate our classrooms and district. We can do that through our union, which remains an all-important lever for change in our schools. But we need to raise our voices and not let others speak blindly for us or for our students.

Please feel free to share your reactions in the comments below.  You can also send oped submissions to [email protected]

Previous commentaries: “Backwards Mindset” in Union InitiativeReformers By Any Other Name?Districts Wrong to Rely on Interns, Teacher Says;  Why Zimmer *Really* Switched Sides