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I received the following letter from a teacher at a charter school, who was recently fired for her efforts to start a union.
Kate Connors writes:
I was excited when I accepted the teaching position at New Dawn Charter High School, in Brooklyn, NY. It was the 2012-2013 school year, the school’s opening year. The teachers reported to work in mid August for orientation. I immediately liked my colleagues and was happy to be working with them. During the orientation, we attended workshops led by the principal that addressed the school’s expectations, lesson planning, and preparing for the school year. At the end of one of these days, the principal told us to dress comfortably for the next day, that we had to get the school ready for the students. Because the school was brand new, the four-story building was still not furnished. On the first floor, in the cafeteria were all the school’s furnishings. The teachers were given the task of moving the items from the cafeteria to the room to which they belonged. The school has four floors and many, many rooms. The cafeteria was filled with desks, tables, file cabinets, bookshelves and more. The teachers worked together moving these large and heavy items. A hand truck was provided for the heavier items. It took a few days, and when we were finally done, the teachers’ desks arrived in flat boxes and in pieces. We were given tools and told to build them ourselves. We were also asked to help clean the building. We were given Windex and paper towels, we were told to clean the windows and lunchroom kitchen. The faculty began discussing amongst themselves how inappropriate this was to ask of the teachers. It was the school’s first year, and we did want to help it get off to a successful start, but this certainly was the start of a steep decline of morale and disappointment with our administration.
The students arrived in September, and I was happy to focus on teaching. I knew that our student population would be challenging, since we were a transfer school that enrolled under-credited and over-aged students. However, I did not anticipate the lack of disciplinary action taken by administration to address student behavior. The students were essentially running the school. There were thefts (phones and computers; all personal property of teachers), cursing and homophobic slurs launched from students to teachers, fights, marijuana use in the building, etc. The worst part is that the teachers began to have safety concerns about coming to work each day. Drug deals were happening outside of the building, a student was chased down the street by someone with a gun and non-students were entering the building. The faculty begged for security. We were told that the janitor would also be acting as a security guard. That wasn’t satisfactory, and we were insistent. They finally hired two security guards, and it was another fight to get the security guard to use metal detector wands.
Despite the unacceptable behavior of the students, the administration justified their inaction by standing by their philosophy that nothing was more important than keeping the students in the classroom and giving them the opportunity to learn. None of the teachers felt supported in or outside of the classroom. It became crystal clear that the administration did not have concern for our safety. During the week of Hurricane Sandy, the Mayor closed down New York City schools for the entire week. Traveling or even being outdoors was dangerous in such weather conditions — even the subways were not running. I was shocked when I received an email from the executive director, Sara Asmussen, telling us to report to school on Thursday and Friday of that week. No students were in attendance, but the faculty was expected to come in and stay in school during the normal 9-5 workday. The administration wanted to open the school for the two days rather than lose two days from our February break.
The faculty’s morale continued to plummet. We spoke about forming a union. We called a meeting of the teachers and had a serious discussion. We all agreed it was essential. However, we didn’t reach out to the UFT until the following year. The school year was coming to a close. I was interviewing elsewhere and had hopes of leaving; however, I could not find a position so I returned to New Dawn. Our math teacher, science teacher, social studies teacher and social worker had found positions elsewhere and resigned.
New Dawn is a year round school, so again, the teachers reported to work in the summer. We met with the new teachers who replaced those who resigned, in addition to the new staff members that were hired because we were enrolling more students. The summer was a repeat of the previous year. We were asked to take trash from the back of the school to the curb. There were month’s worth of boxes and bags just left there because the custodial staff left in June and were not replaced. We were given gloves and plastic aprons to use while doing these duties. I continued to search for open positions in other schools hoping that I could find something before September, but as I mentioned, it did not work out.
Come September, the students arrived, and similar behavioral issues ensued. Despite the horrible climate set by the administration, I was able to feel good about building a positive rapport with some of the students. I also feel that I made a difference in some of the students’ lives, no matter how small it may have been. I did my best to give to our students while I was employed at New Dawn.
Again came the discussion of unionizing. We had to act. I reached out to the UFT and was assigned a union representative. A teacher and I met with her after school. We outlined our grievances with her, and she advised us on starting a union. The senior teachers were on board right away. The new teachers were reluctant because they feared repercussions. In the end, all teachers signed a union card and we announced to the administration that we formed a union. After this announcement, the teachers’ fears became a reality. The administration responded harshly. Walking into the building, the executive director would not even make eye contact or interact with you. The principal canceled the majority of our after school professional development programs, and I received several emails accusing me of grievances that I did not commit, including not showing up to class and breaking a student’s confidentiality. A colleague had to speak with the executive director about his vacation plans to see his family, and he was told that the time might “not be available” to him. When asked why, the executive director pointed to the UFT keychain sticking out of his pocket.
We worked hard to motivate the faculty to keep their heads up. We attended board meetings monthly and requested that the school acknowledge that we were a union and to begin negotiating with us. Again and again, we were shut down. The simplest requests, such as changing the time of the board meeting to after-school hours so we could attend the entire meeting, rather than the last portion of the meeting, were turned down.
I wasn’t completely surprised when, at the end of the school year, four of the most vocal union supporters were terminated. It was no coincidence. The employee handbook discusses a progressive disciplinary plan, which begins with a verbal warning and proceeds to written warnings before a termination can take place. None of the four teachers ever received a warning that their employment was in jeopardy. We immediately filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB found our complaint valid and notified the school of the charges against them. It wasn’t long before the school settled the charge and provided backpay to the teachers and expunged all records of our termination. In addition to losing us, five staff members resigned. Unfortunately, the remaining teachers continue to work in this turbulent environment. On the first school day that the remaining teachers reported to work in early July, the executive director made a speech that was coercive and punitive. She reprimanded the staff for union activity and threatened them with legal action if they used the students’ contact information to speak with them about supporting the teacher’s union. This speech was recorded by a teacher and was presented to the NLRB, who filed another charge against the school. I hope that the conditions change for the sake of the teachers and the students, but I am doubtful that any change will occur.
Despite this negative experience, I have decided to continue my career in education. I am proud to say that I am now a teacher in a New York City Public School. The four terminated teachers, as well as the five teachers who resigned, all found jobs in public schools. Working in my current school is such a different experience. I am so happy to get up for work in the morning. I feel appreciated and supported by my administration. I am able to focus on growing as a teacher rather than protecting myself. I hope to continue in the public school system for many years to come.