June 3rd was a big day for OUSD teachers:  we had the opportunity to ratify the Tentative Agreement on our contract, a step which would reform hiring practices in the District, modify our health care benefits, change caps on counseling and special education ratios, and–perhaps most important–significantly increase our pay.

The date also coincided with a welcome dinner for our fourth cohort of Teacher Fellows. We welcomed sixteen new teachers into the fellowship, and hosted Paul Toner, past president of the 110,000 member Massachusetts Teachers Union.

With the energy generated by the OEA union vote, we were primed to hear Toner’s narrative of strengthening unions through increased participation. Toner first became involved in his local teachers union in Cambridge almost by accident, and initially, he was put off by the atmosphere and tone that pervaded the meetings.  In a 2013 TeachPlus interview on the GameChangers blog, he said,  “I found that a minority of negative people seemed to be the loudest and dominated the union meetings…My friends and I began to think that this was not good…for the members or the students”. Rather than withdraw, Toner increased his involvement and focused on making positive changes, helping to create a union he wanted to be a part of.  When pressed to explain the most critical factor in increasing union engagement in Cambridge, Toner didn’t enumerate some sophisticated outreach strategy.  Rather, he revealed that his union started having regular social events at The Thirsty Scholar in Somerville, MA. (Surely Oakland must have a bar with an equally awesome, education-related name!)

Paul rose from school representative to local president to state Vice President and, ultimately, MTA President.  Paul calls himself a “progressive” unionist and believes we must reform our view of the union as an organization that only pursues better pay and job protection for teachers.  Instead, we need to become a union of professional educators.  He is steadfast in his belief that, in order to be “treated as professionals and maintain the support of the public we must be equally zealous in our advocacy in promoting teacher quality and teacher-led reforms. We must advocate for setting high academic standards, promoting strong evaluation systems and designing better teacher preparation and professional development programs” (Real Clear Education, 2014).

A union that represents more voices, increases dialogue and civility, and seeks to professionalize our work?  That’s something we were all ready to vote to ratify!

Two weeks later, the GO Teacher Policy Fellows had another important visitor.  On June 16th, we met with OUSD Superintendent, Antwan Wilson. The meeting was conceived of as follow-up to a teacher forum the Policy Fellows hosted in April to learn more about the Call for Quality Schools and the current Intensive Support Schools. The forum had been a success:  30 teachers from 20 different schools, both district and charter, came together to hear from a panel consisting of educators with expertise in school turnaround.  Afterwards, the rich discussions among participants were compiled into a letter full of questions, ideas, and understandings, which was sent to the Superintendent (Click here to read the letter).

We spent the first part of our June meeting with Wilson discussing the Call for Quality Schools further. Wilson shared some of the successes around the policy, as well as some challenges that he and his team faced this year. Overall, Wilson evinced optimism about the policy and enthusiasm about embarking on the next phase of reform with the four current ISS schools.

In addition to discussing the Call for Quality Schools, Wilson shared his priorities for the district, specifically around attracting and retaining effective talent, a matter that  the Fellows are strongly invested in.  He shared some of his ideas for helping to keep effective educators in the district, including higher pay, a strong evaluation system, and career pipelines for teachers to advance professionally while remaining  in the classroom. He reached out to the Fellows for more ideas and best practices to attract effective educators and keep them in Oakland. The discussion sparked innovative ideas from both charter and district perspectives.

The meeting ended with a chance for Wilson to reflect on his first year in Oakland and share some of his highlights along with lessons he has learned. He spoke candidly and with a sense of great hope for the future of Oakland Unified. The meeting was an exciting opportunity for GO Policy Fellows to learn more about Wilson’s plans while also providing a platform to share our unique experiences as Oakland teachers. We appreciate Superintendent Wilson taking the time to meet with us and we look forward to working more with him to make positive change in OUSD.

Paul Toner and Antwan Wilson.  The 2014-2015 GO Teacher Policy Fellowship ended with some thought-provoking guest speakers.  We’re going into the summer to rest up and revitalize for opportunities in the new school year to not only do great work in our classrooms, but to be leaders and change-makers in larger spheres.  See you in September (er…mid-August)!

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