Wednesday, December 19, 2007

EA Shout Out

Earlier today I was informed that the tentative agreement for Educational Assistants was approved by our membership. It went to the school board tonight and they approved it as well. When I spoke about the work of our EA negotiations team at the public comment period, as well as the evolving career paths and professional expectations of our EAs, I was met with a lot of agreement. EAs in this district need to know that many people felt that my comments expressed their feelings for educational assistants as well. They see EAs as vital to school communities. In fact, some see various EA roles as powerful forces on school climate, culture, and reputation. That is a compliment to the work our EAs do, as well as some great expectations for those who come after you because you are obviously doing high-quality work.

Thank you, EAs, for the faith you put in out bargaining team. Keep those ideas coming in. Thank you for the work you do. Your work is worth fighting for!

click your heels three times...

With all the ironing out we are doing, you would think we were negotiating for a pair of ruby-red slippers. No, only accessible and affordable health insurance. Now that I think of it, those shoes are probably more accessible and more affordable than health insurance has become for our members. We have spent a great amount of time as a team and in meetings with the district discerning exactly what is fair vs. equitable. In general, we are progressing and we are in agreement about the general situation for members and Minnesotans. Specifically, outside of the negotiating table, I would like a little something for the effort.

Health insurance costs are eating up more and more of the district's budget. Money that could be used to innovate, could be used to hire staff, could be used for high-quality professional development is being eaten up by rising health care costs. Yet, rather than offer some leadership on this, it has been our union, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, that has offered the only leadership on this issue. It is the St. Paul Federation of Teachers that has endorsed the Statewide Health Insurance Pool for School Employees for the last 4 years. It is the St. Paul Federation of Teachers that is researching the feasibility of getting our coverage cheaper through the Public Employee Insurance Pool, and it is the St. Paul Federation of Teachers that has committed to working with results-oriented groups like Take Action Minnesota to craft a real health care solution for all Minnesotans. We will work for everything we can at the bargaining table, but we are done with band-aids for health care. We will keep working for a solution, not just a settlement.

With that said, I do believe when you return from your winter break-in-service, you will have a settlement waiting for you, and your little dog, too.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Just keep swimming

I am a bit of a Pixar junkie, so it is appropo that I find a metaphor for quite a lot in Finding Nemo. Pardon the Chris Farley, but remember that time when the face mask falls into deeper and darker water? Remember when Dori keeps uttering "Just keep swimming" to Nemo's dad (played fabulously by Albert Brooks) as a way to find the face mask? Then they find it and it is a seminal moment in Dori's life because she gets what she wants, which is to remember something in her long-term memory? Yeah?

I liked that part.

I am still confident that we are working toward a settlement, but we do keep working.

We met with the district yesterday and today. We will also meet again next week, including a meeting on Thursday scheduled to go all day again. We need to make sure that we have exhausted our proposals, our ideas, and our energy. When we do have a settlement to report, you can be assured that we have left no points on the bench. When we do have a settlement to report, you can also be assured that we will share who got the most penalty minutes, too, but not until you have read the tentative agreement.

We will get this wrapped up, voting and all, by January 15th. We are committed to that. Having that commitment brings a modicum of relief and focus on all the other matters governing the daily work of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers: our members' questions about programming changes, work to support those on improvement plans, our National Board Certification "Take One!" Federal Grant site, researching the implementation of Peer Assistance and Review, encouraging members to sign up for the Education Minnesota Representative Convention, recruiting members and others to present topics of expertise at the April 12th professional conference, expanding our ER&D courses, implementing our ambitious organizing plan, and staffing committees, boards and councils looking for SPFT input.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

So close and yet so far

The teacher bargaining team spent all last week negotiating. It was hard to know what to post because after each meeting we would find ourselves on the verge of progress, but not enough to announce anything. After 2 marathon sessions on Thursday and Friday we still found ourselves on the verge of something, but you know close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, as well as the occasional bocce ball game, I suppose. We have 2 sessions planned this week: Wednesday 3-7 and Thursday 3-7. We will do everything we can to have something ready to share before teachers leave for winter break.

It is aggravating, to say the least, to try to wrap up negotiations and bring forward a settlement we are not just willing to show members, but are proud to show members, and to have 7 different program changes going on as well. Any sort of change, even if it is exciting, expected, and good, can be scary because it involves giving up some or much of what you know for what you don't know. Add to that pages of the contract that don't get read by entire staffs very often, programs and teaching methods that some members are absolutely committed to, programs and teaching methods that some members are being asked to give up, staff teams who have been told they and their work is extremely valued, staff teams who have been told that their ideas just aren't cutting it, teachers who want a say in proposed changes, teachers who just want to be told what it is going to be so they can commit or move on, and other school staffs quietly waiting for the other shoe to drop on them and you have a heckuva time talking about contract language in the abstract. SPFT is completely committed to getting our contract settled and getting questions about these program changes answered simultaneously. It reminds me of my favorite quote from the Marines: The difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a little longer.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Thanks EA Team!

Negotiating contract language (or defense of it), quite honestly, falls into the Twain-ish category of laws and sausages unfortunately. While you should not want to see it made, invariably someone looks at the ingredients list and gets grossed out. Terri, Rosie, and Katie deserve much thanks for diving in with Terri Ellisen and me and grinding away until every last item was defended or bargained to within an inch of its existence. It is easy to look at what a tentative agreement does not have, and that is natural, but I was fortunate enough to watch these women work with tenacity up close. This was a team of experienced negotiators and experienced employees. They had a broad understanding of the contract and they were fabulous storytellers when we needed to highlight the professional needs of EAs.

I certainly came into this team with my own agenda: St. Paul's living wage ordinance as an inspiration when talking about salaries and professional/leave language that more closely matched the teachers' contract. As a teacher, my stories of EA wages, benefits and working conditions were all from colleagues, but I was familiar enough with EAs to know that some EAs work for health insurance for their families alone, some are still working 2 or 3 jobs deep into their careers as EAs to make ends meet, and that there needs to be a shift in thinking about EA work as career work. I am committed to the belief that progressive contract negotiating can address all of this.

I see the colloquial notion of EAs in the past and the growing sophistication of EA work now. Many still think of EAs as some sort of farm team that is waiting to be called up to the teaching ranks with the right offer. We know that EAs love their careers and see themselves as professionals adding value to the district with exactly what they are doing. Unfortunately, many still want to think of EA work as a "mom job" for a little extra income, when the reality is that these are now careers that need and deserve living wages. Some still want to see EAs as expendable helpers when sheer determination, self-worth, No Child Left Behind, and a high value on education has brought us a corps of experts in the work EAs do. I want to thank the EA team for representing this evolution of EA work so well at the bargaining table. I am proud of the work they did and I am determined to do what I can to encourage this evolution at every opportunity in order to honor the work they did.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Our friends in Minneapolis, Local 59

The editorial in Sunday's StarTribune regarding one, specific issue being bargained was completely inappropriate. To have a local newspaper come out on one side of contract language that could still be live at the bargaining table sets up bargaining in good faith to fail. The specific issue addressed was the role teacher seniority plays in transferring from school to school. To take a shot at seniority as if it would be some magic bullet for the complexities of Minneapolis Public Schools is to have watched one too many Lone Ranger episodes. To assume that 'if we have what St. Paul has we'll be perfect" (while understandably a fabulous standard in which to aspire in so many other capacities) is to have listened to far too little Prairie Home Companion.

MFT, Local 59 and the Minneapolis School District were already in mediation when Sunday's editorial ran. The best use of soy ink spent on their negotiation process would have been wishing both sides well in their work on behalf of Minneapolis and the Metro area. To have suggested that the community should cheer for a successful, healing, and forward-thinking settlement would have acknowledged what many of us who actually care for the students, staff, and community of Minneapolis' public schools already know: the success of Minneapolis students is our collective success and the failure of Minneapolis students is our collective failure. Therefore, we all have a stake in the successful completion of these contract negotiations as well as the deliberation of a thoughtful strategic plan.

The teachers serving on MFT's bargaining team spend every day teaching the students of Minneapolis Public Schools. The teachers serving on MFT's bargaining team have their own children in Minneapolis Public Schools. I trust the teachers serving on MFT's bargaining team. Despite mediation, despite the StarTribune editorial, I wish the teachers serving on MFT's bargaining team well and I wish the staff and students of Minneapolis Public Schools much success.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What to expect when you're settling

Teacher Team

We met all day with the district team and spent all of our time trying to wrap up how we address the reality of our workload with contract language, specifically:
  • Planning periods
  • Monthly meetings
  • Evening obligations
It is uncanny how you can spend 3 times the length of a planning period discussing a planning period. How could 50 little minutes cause so much consternation? What are planning periods used for? Why were they negotiated in the first place? Are you going to find out what kind of planning period you are having? What will you name your planning period? Should you automatically see the school nurse if you miss your planning period?

Monthly meetings and evening obligations had many of the same sort of questions, but of course not as many pictures in the family album as the first discussion.

Our discussion was thoughtful, the ideas plentiful, and the consensus is within reach, which leads to me the protocol we will follow when we do settle this contract.
  • After our team has reached a tentative agreement with the school district we will call an emergency meeting of the SPFT Executive Board to gain their support of the agreement.
  • Once we have secured their support a series of informational meetings will take place in order to let stewards learn of the tentative agreement.
  • Stewards will then bring the agreement back to their buildings and programs to share with SPFT members and non-members.
  • Finally, a district-wide vote will take place at each site and the results will be shared with the membership.
The agreement will become final when the St. Paul School Board votes in favor of it after the teachers. Cigars all around! (Shh, don't share it on your Health Partners survey though!)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A few of my favorite things

Teacher Team

After some time off for conferences, conflicts and cranberry dressing tomorrow we are back at it. At last night's membership meeting some insightful questions were raised as well as some encouraging and provoking comments. It was great to see a membership room packed with SPFT members who care, even as they worry about the lack of tangible progress and express fear at potential disappointment. One great suggestion amidst our discussion of workload was for me to post the list of typical duties we have given the district in our workload discussions. Please feel free to add to it because I am going to go off the top of my head, and perhaps when we're finished we can get Julie Andrews or Barbara Streisand to set it to music for us. Here's to a contract settlement with blue satin sashes, folks, and the vigilance that assures we can afford to wrap our packages in more than brown paper and string.

Current typical planning period work to do:

  • choose books for author study
  • re-shelve books in classroom library
  • copy work for absent students
  • copy work for next lessons
  • post current standards in the classroom
  • post student work with applicable student-generated rubric, highlighting work to standard
  • run random sweatshirt, purse, mitten to the lost and found
  • check in with school nurse about medication, observation, student sick last period, or vaccinations
  • secure bus, chaperones, permission slips for field trip
  • count out field trip, book order, school photo order, school fundraising order money
  • check off field trip permission, homework completion note home
  • return phone calls
  • read, send, manage email
  • update Parent Portal, Campus grades, attendance, IEP records
  • get volunteer for career day, assembly, community organization, tutoring program
  • meet with grade level/subject area team, parent, special education teacher, ELL teacher, principal
  • wash off desks, empty pencil sharpener, dust room, vacuum carpet (if you have it) and wash black board/dry erase board
  • sign up for library or computer lab time
  • analyze student data from most recent standardized test
  • go to the bathroom

I know Denise Rodriguez did a great job adding to this list during the negotiations meeting so please add to what I missed, although you obviously won't have time during your planning period.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Our teacher team met tonight for a few hours just to recalibrate our commitment to proposals we have already made, interests still on the back burner, and to clarify not only where we stand on issues important to us, but why we are standing there as well. I am never disappointed by this team. While we have frequent reality checks concerning the 'world enough and time' we have to accomplish everything we want to accomplish, most often the discussion revolves around why our requests are more urgent than usual. We have a tremendous window of opportunity to make our contract a powerful tool to attract and retain a very high quality and sought after work force. In this economy, and with our typical level of education, SPPS is no longer competing with other school districts for employees. While that is still the case, that is only part of the story. We are now competing with other occupations for employees. Being mindful of that has lead to some interesting new contract language opportunities, as well as revisiting past contract language suggestions that are just as relevant now as they were when past bargaining teams first proposed them.

If we can be ambitious at the same time we address a healthy workload, we could be well on our way to leaving this career a little better than the way we found it for those teachers who will spend their entire careers in the 21st century. Having a conversation around a professional workday and the professional pay that goes with it is another opportunity to leave a legacy of respect and opportunity for our next generation of teachers. Opportunities like this remind me that in our union's history there were good men and women who believed I deserved to keep my job even if I got married, or believed I could keep teaching even though I was having a baby even in the middle of being denied those rights themselves. They thought beyond themselves, and now I am a beneficiary of their selflessness. That thinking is a perfect embodiment of what it means to work for the collective good in a union. I am profoundly grateful for those rights as well as others, and humbled by the opportunity I have, indeed our whole bargaining team has, to bring about rights for others in the same spirit.

An Educational Assistants update, too!

EA Team November 8, 2007

This EA team of experienced negotiators not only has a breadth of experience in all facets of the contract (they have been laid off, moved, seen programs end, experience virtually all grade levels of collaboration with teachers and students) but they also have a clear picture of where the profession should go for educational assistants as well as a solid understanding of the role they play in the success of a program, building, or teacher in meeting the needs of our students. That is one of the reasons they have spent so much time articulating the professional development needs of EAs in a district as complex and ambitious as ours. My learning curve about the day-in-the-life of an EA is fairly steep, having simply appreciated the work of educational assistants in my building before being elected and getting to know EAs professionally through union volunteering and now work, but I am grateful for the opportunity to negotiate with such an experienced, dedicated, and tenacious team of Terri Furman, Rosemary O’Brien, Katie Wold and Terri Ellisen, SPFT Business Agent. We have work to do, but considering the team was still going strong almost 5 hours into our meeting time, this team plans to keep pressing on.

A momentous day! Well, almost.

Teacher team November 7, 2007

Today we had the opportunity to take our interests around workload, look to the solutions we brainstormed, and offer some concrete “what if” sort of ideas for possible agreement. Earlier we had agreed that our agenda would have just 2 items since this was just a 3 hour meeting: Our reaction to “what if” ideas from last time and ironing out the workload issues that would cost little or no money. Our team had a lively and optimistic pre-meeting where we hammered out language around a number of workload issues that we were very excited about. Once our joint meeting got started we began with questions and discussion around some of the most promising “what if” ideas from last time. It was honest and pragmatic. There was a lot more agreement in the room than disagreement. Many of the “what ifs” proposed last time met the criteria for a number of our interests, but because there was a price tag attached, we had to put it aside in order to spend some time on agenda item number 2.

So what workload issues don’t actually cost money? A fair question. I suppose, like Kevin Bacon, everything can be traced back to some line item in some budget in 6 steps or fewer. However, all notions of a different school day, school year, school ratio aside, many of the most comforting workload ideas center around clarity of expectations, especially around evening/weekend/margins of your life student contact and professional development. This is what the SPFT team got so excited about as we met. This is what we will continue to bring up. This is what we intend to find some common ground around because our team has got some serious momentum. While we walked away after 3 ½ hours without any tentative or concrete agreements, (uff da!) we found our team even more fired up to press on.

The “It takes a village” discussion

Teacher team October 24, 2007

In another all-day session with the district we managed to cover almost every surface of the membership room with butcher paper I think I recognized as a small forest I pass on my way to visit my folks on the Iron Range. Nonetheless, what we lost in trees we gained in identifying ways we can solve the workload issues we have been bringing up. Our discussion of how professional development has been implemented and how we want professional development implemented sparked a great deal of discussion and creativity, too.

Some magnificent ideas were brainstormed but we had no opportunity to determine what it would take to implement some, or what the feasibility would be of implementing others. This must become our priority if we are ever to come to some resolution about our workload, especially as it is affected by the district’s ambitious professional development goals. I must be confident that it will be a priority in November so we can bring some closure to workload and address some other topics important to the interests of teachers and SPPS as we work to meet the needs of St. Paul students.

We also spent a great deal of time recognizing the powerful role the community plays in our schools and the powerful role the community can have in our schools. In this case “the community” was not merely code language for ‘parental responsibility’ but a serious and creative discussion on how the city, parks, businesses, affinity groups, parents, and other public servants could be tapped for learning opportunities that would make St. Paul even more resourceful. While a great deal of this discussion fell outside of the opportunity to negotiate in our contract language, it was worthy to bring up in order to determine how and where we start to have conversations once our contract is settled and we get back to exclusively doing the work of delivering a world class education to every child.

Workload issues

Teacher team October 17, 2007

“Keep the implementation real but let our expectations be creative.” After listening to much pragmatic discussion this phrase came to mind. We met with the district again and spent much of the time on setting some ground rules for how we would work together to evaluate the options we have around addressing the real need for our teachers to have some clarity and balance around workload issues, especially if we are to find balance in the rest of our lives. We have got to find the sort of solutions that feel like progress and actually help to support the critical academic work we are hired to do. Our time in the classroom is vital, and so is preparing for that time. Whatever encroaches on that time (chaperoning school dances, setting up/advertising/promoting/attending the school science fair/concert /play/literacy night/honors night/harvest festival) needs to have direct and explicit value to student learning. Our team is together on this and we are relentless.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Teacher Workload

Our teacher team started the day today working with the district negotiating team on the norms we will follow as we discuss teacher workload and professional development. Together, both teams then identified our interests around addressing workload, what the current reality is around teacher workload, and what options might be relevant to addressing the issue. The district representatives were sincere in their interest to listen to all the workload and professional development issues brought up and ideas generated. While a lot needs to be ironed out, a lot of progress was made. We assigned ourselves some homework to continue thinking of solutions in preparation for a follow-up meeting with the district on Wednesday, October 17th after school.

In retrospect it felt a lot like the work you do as a teacher to build a classroom community. First you establish the sort of rules that will help you function, then you can introduce the interests that will guide your work. Most often in a class these are standards, with the implicit interest being the next skill or even grade level available, but at times the interests your students have and the interest you have as a teacher converge and are less tangible and more intrinsic. For me this would often happen when I had the chance to teach the elements of poetry by studying Langston Hughes. In the midst of a lesson about rhyme or meter or how he might play with space on a page, we would find ourselves lost in his words and discussing so much more. It almost seemed criminal to lasso the learning back to a mere academic standard when I had a glimpse of real-time learning blossom in front of me.

While we are going to have to be mindful of our January 15th deadline to complete our negotiating and all of the standards that pin-prick at our interests, it seems that we have a team that will look for every opportunity for real progress.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Peer Assistance and Review (PAR)

This weekend I am in Silver Spring, Maryland for a 3 1/2 day workshop on peer assistance and review (PAR). I am very interested in PAR for a few reasons. First, I want teachers to be able to control the quality of our profession. Our union has organized teachers to address the quality of our wages, benefits, and working conditions but historically we have let our adversaries, or those politicians who know nothing about education, control the quality of our profession. I have been president for a very short time, but twice in that time probationary teachers have been let go despite being advocated for by a number of tenured teachers or experienced EAs who actually KNEW THEIR WORK as opposed to an administrator's 10 minute classroom visit and/or hearsay from another district. We are the group who should be the gatekeepers to the quality of our profession because we have dedicated ourselves to our profession. We do the work of teaching the students of St. Paul Schools everyday and we are responsible to build on the work of our colleagues. I can't wait to explore PAR with the building stewards, members, and Executive Board of SPFT, to determine how we can use this idea to ensure the quality and reputation of our profession.

We already have the language in the back of our contract that says we will develop PAR, now it is just up to us to do this in a way that supports and enhances a new teacher's achievement of tenure within some very clear standards that measure effective teaching. The more obvious we make it known that we have standards for quality in our teaching ranks, the more obvious it will be to everyone in St. Paul and Minnesota that St. Paul Public Schools and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers are both serious about working together to ensure a world-class education for every child.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"Team Teacher"

Far more domestic, and certainly close to home, is the negotiating work I have been doing with the teacher and the EA teams. Because I had already started this blog for my study tour to the Middle East, I realized that this would be one 'real time' way to get out information about the process and progress of negotiations for the 2007-09 contracts for teachers and educational assistants in SPFT. Here is a start:

The teachers are a team. Wednesday night (the 10th) our teacher bargaining team met again in preparation for our all day meeting with the District on October 15th. It is an intense group and when our collective experience gets shared with each other we tend to agitate each other, make each other think, and most often inspire each other. These are feisty, articulate, thoughtful, and passionate representatives of SPFT who intend to advocate for healthier and more attractive working conditions at every opportunity. Last night's almost 3 hour, after school meeting was exclusively focused on the workload all of our teachers experience pre-k through 12 and within each license area. Even within the potentially demoralizing topic of workload though, there were stories of commitment to our students, our profession, and to each other. I am looking forward to our time with the District on the 15th because this team never fails to impress me with their focus and their dedication. I know we are determined to improve our profession. Keep your thoughts with us!

Monday, June 4, 2007

First thoughts on my last day in Yemen

On June 2nd I was set to fly out of Yemen at 6:55 p.m. and I had a day packed with 4 meetings: The US Embassy, the USAID staff, UNICEF, and with the President of the Arab Sisters Forum. My last 2 meetings in Sana'a, Yemen were some of my most productive. The women from the UNICEF office challenged us to first ask the teachers' unions if they have committed to equalizing access to education for girls. I think that is entirely reasonable and I think we should make that a condition of our work with any trade union here. Improving the learning climate for girls needs to be our priority. As it stands, unless your family has money and a bit of a liberal attitude, there is absolutely no future for you except to be one of a man's possibly 4 wives having children until your uterus gives out, which can happen on your wedding day because of the genital mutilation you may have been subject to as an infant.

Conditions for Yemeni women were better before the 1st Gulf war when over 800,000 Yemeni expatriates came back with extremely conservative views, largely returning from Saudi Arabia. Now women are blatantly subjected to second-class citizenship, internalizing their own oppression, and the men we met with meanwhile are asking for time/decades/ centuries to correct it. Given what I know now, that is absolutely unacceptable. As an embassy official said this morning when I debriefed with her, "then let's fund their programs at 1885 figures, and see how much time they want to take for us to increase it." Needless to say, I LOVED her. Sadly, she is moving on to Tel Aviv in a few months.

The women at UNICEF went on to say that classroom management wouldn't be helpful unless there was some gender parity training to go with it. If boys are still the only ones called on, if secondary female students still get pushed out of school because of a lack of female teachers instead of letting them attend classes with a male teacher, if women are forced to leave the profession when they get married and have a family, when girls have to sit in the back of the room and are taught not to raise their hands, then we have much bigger problems than spitballs and talking back.

These women from UNICEF (one Dutch, one Yemeni) were amazing with their gentle but assured prodding. I was so inspired by their amazing focus on the state of women and girls. I felt like they were the first group all week to keep me totally honest about getting what I came for in Yemen.

My next meeting with Amal al Basha, the president of the Arab Sisters Forum will easily go down as a seminal moment in my life. I really felt like I was sitting at the feet of a master. Listening to her, I realized that I had merely been safely dabbling around the edges of social change. I was firmly tucked in my cocoon of half privilege safe enough to believe that there was just enough urgency for change that I merely had to offer bribes to my conscience to believe that I was doing good work for the world when in fact I am too comfortable. Her struggle will only become my struggle when I am in it as deeply as she is. Their struggle will become the world's struggle when we can successfully cause good people to lose enough sleep over the condition of women world-wide that we all do something about it. She showed me pictures of her in the paper that have her caricatured as the devil. She has been threatened with an immorality arrest for "denouncing Islam," which she never did. She is one of only 31 women in all of Yemen who do not cover their heads when they go out. Yet, she makes time in her amazingly busy schedule, and makes room in her home for this American woman she has never met. She listens to me, at this immature stage in my learning curve of the Middle East/Yemen, and offers encouragement and seems so sure of herself. She should be. She is on the side of what is right in everything she does. Is it any wonder that my meetings today were primarily with women and I felt that they were the most productive?! In all three, they essentially put the question directly to me, "How is this country going to be better for girls when you leave?" I will be honest, after talking with them, I realize now that is exactly the work I have cut out for me, for all of us.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Arabic spoken here

I just returned from one of two trips I have now had the opportunity to take to the "sook," or market, in Sana'a where I am staying. This open-air market with its shoe-box sized stalls is where Yemenis go to get their spices, their clothing, shoes, kitchen utensils and to maybe grab a bite to eat. In both visits, we were eventually accompanied by a young man who was extremely helpful in guiding us around. Also, both times each of the young men had very strong English skills. They did not expect to get paid, they were not asking for "baksheesh" (money) , and although we were told that they more than likely got some sort of kick back from the owners of the stalls that they took us to, it seemed to me, with their interesting questions and polite conversation, that they were merely looking for an opportunity to practice their English.

Over the last 5 days my resolve to introduce Arabic language study to St. Paul has grown more and more. I have always been extremely proud of the work St. Paul schools has done to make world languages accessible to students. In fact, both of my children study Spanish and I hope they go on to study Chinese, French, German, Japanese or another language as secondary students. The world language teachers I have met in St. Paul are entirely dedicated to their work and quite cognizant of the importance of their work as our world grows together and communication gets easier. While I think St. Paul Public Schools should continue to invest in the languages it has, we should be working to expand the languages we offer and expand the opportunities for our students to access that learning.

Each time I log on to this computer I am convinced more and more that we should be just as serious about Arabic language study as every other language. Consistently, no matter what site I go to:,,,; at least 3 out of 6 headlines are reporting news originating in or happening in Arabic speaking countries. Strategically, the United States is going to have a strong interest in this region for a long time to come. There are as many opportunities here as their are situations to resolve or problems to solve and although I am honored to be here studying what the American Federation of Teachers can do, I know that our work here is going to need to be continued by another generation. In fact, with an investment in language education, our current work could only be improved upon, and the world's relationship with the countries of the Middle East could actually evolve.

Right now we are playing catch up with Chinese languages. Let us use that as a lesson and not let it happen again with another one of the world's strategic languages.

Uncommon experiences travelling

Most of my group left this morning for the 15 hour flight back to their various corners of the United States so I have had a bit of time before gearing up for my work in Yemen today. I have remained behind in order to determine how the AFT can help teachers over here with their work in the classroom as well as their work in building a successful, democratic trade union. In this time, I have had the opportunity to list all of the little things that I did not prepare for but came up anyway on this trip.

First of all, I am typing on an Arabic keyboard that has keys in slightly different places than my English keyboard at home. That and the fact that this website consistently comes up in German (I can't read German) has made for some entertaining work in managing this blog, spell-checking, and trying to make the best use of my limited Internet time. While I have had the some of the usual translation stories that accompany my limited language acquisition and my hosts limited English, I have been impressed over and over with how hard everyone works to understand each other when we don't share a language, how patient the Yemenis are with me, and how polite everyone has been. My perceptions of Islam and experiencing a Muslim country have been enlightened along the way.

In thinking about all of these opportunities to problem solve, I realize that this is exactly the sort of navigation we need to be teaching our students everyday. This world is theirs and we need to equip them with every skill possible so that when they find themselves in these situations in the future, whether that future is a business trip to Yemen or navigating a new social studies class and the culture, language/lexicon, expectations, and norms that follow, they are able to see the experience as an opportunity to problem solve as well at stretch, grow, and learn about themselves.

I went into teaching because I loved my subject and I loved the idea of a career in teaching, so it was work for me to remember that loving English/language arts (and being okay with 7th grade) wasn't native to every student. I had to bring them there. It seems common that our first reaction to change or to something new is to retreat. Travelling has certainly brought that instinct out in me from time to time, but I know in teaching it took time to reflect on my classroom to remember that sometimes all it took to retreat for my students was the time it took to travel down the hall to my room to feel foreign, to retreat, or to become defensive. Balancing the ambitious work of teaching with setting a classroom climate where it would be safe to take risks and use their time with me as an opportunity to stretch, to grow, to learn about themselves was always a challenge. The real issue became the time I had to reflect to improve myself, or rather, the lack of time.

Just as I have a break in my schedule this morning, those moments I had the opportunity to reflect amidst the break-neck pace of teaching helped me better meet the needs of my students. Too often I only found that time when I couldn't sleep at the end of the day because I was still too wound up from my day of teaching, reviewing my rotating list of things to do during my prep the next day and trying to figure out how I was going to get my children dropped off early enough before school (but after my day care opened) in order to do those things that could not wait until prep time.

Like travelling, all of us need down time to think and to reflect on our work. We need opportunities to remember that we may have made our classrooms native for us, but we are inviting all travellers who have only a short time to learn from us before we send them off to the care of our colleagues in the next grade, the next room, or the next step in their education. I believe that the St. Paul Federation of Teachers should make it our priority to carve out that time to reflect. Each of us as individual professionals will then make it our priority to use that time to welcome the world to learn with us.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Time out for a word on that veto

Today we had an afternoon meeting scheduled with a group of independent Yemeni journalists who were going to talk to us about the political situation in Yemen. Unfortunately (on many levels), an explosion went off north of Sana'a, where we are staying, and they all went to cover that instead. While the rest of Sana'a went about its day, and our interpreter from Beirut, Lebanon just shrugged her shoulders, I had the chance to catch up on news from St. Paul.

I was very disappointed to learn that Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed the statewide health insurance pool bill for school employees (SWHI). The rising cost of providing health insurance must be addressed and our statewide union has been the only group to attempt that. Officials opposed to the SWHI bill, including Gov. Pawlenty, had over 4 years to offer an alternative. Instead, the Governor's only response during that time was to make access to affordable health insurance even harder by kicking Minnesotans off of MNCare.

This legislation was extensively vetted over 4 years, so the Governor (and every DFL and Republican legislator who opposed it as well) had every opportunity to offer solutions or ideas. Instead, one of his primary arguments is that our workforce is aging and the SWHI bill does nothing to address that. As far as I can tell every work force is aging, including the Executive Branch of our state government. Short of discovering a Fountain of Youth, one of the ways I have been told that you can prevent aging is by keeping your mind sharp by thinking. Education Minnesota has been thinking of a solution.

The Governor also criticises the bill for failing to address the runaway cost of prescription drug coverage. I find this criticism the most disheartening of all. Rather than merely complain, this issue could have been the perfect opportunity for the Governor to use the power of his office to partner with this legislation. He could have offered a tandem solution to prescription drug costs and coverage that could have not only dove-tailed to the statewide pool, but possibly enhanced Minnesota Care as well. Instead of creativity he offered criticism. Health insurance in Minnesota will continue to languish from this disappointing lack of leadership.

Of course there was an entire contingency of legislators who also spent 4 years refusing to lead on this issue and instead failed to commit to the intense work of finding common ground for the common good. They measured their votes in 10,000 steps and $6 million subsidies, rather than in the long-term health of crafting a real solution for our state.

We must call on our elected officials to take opportunities to show real leadership. This lesson is not lost on me.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

From conflict to alliance

We landed in Yemen at 2 a.m. on Monday morning and since have had 9 meetings and a couple different tours. Aside from yesterday's powerful meeting with the Arab Sisters Forum, which was run by 2 female workers for SAF, today was the first day that a woman was present at one of our meetings in any official capacity. Jawhara Hamad Tabet was a top official with the Yemeni Socialist Party as well as chair of the Women's Committee and the Civil Society Committee. While she was quiet for quite a bit of the meeting, toward the end the gentleman leading it specifically called to her to answer a question and stated that we "needed to hear her speak." It was the strongest support of a woman by a man I have seen up until this point. She then went on to explain a point about the Socialist party and their strategic alliance with Islah, a strong opposition party, as well as her own history as teacher, principal/director/union activist and social activist.

The refreshing part of this situation is that in at least 2 other situations unfortunately, where we had been in meetings with men professing to work on behalf of the advancement of Yemeni women, no women had been present. Furthermore, when pressed about this by Cathleen, another woman on this trip, or me, we received very evasive or downright disconcerting answers. In one case, when we asked about any women helping to lead we were told that there was one woman in a leadership position, but that she did not want to participate. In another meeting, when pressed, the Islah party pushed back using the struggle of American women to gain the freedoms we currently have and asked for us to have patience. It would take a great deal of time for Yemeni society to advance to a place that American women enjoy now.

I suppose they thought that gave them cover to dodge the question, but it actually points to the larger truth and that is that they don't have the time. Much of the education debate is a fractal of the larger human rights debate going on around the world. It used to seem reasonable to take the time to see if women were up for the pressure of man's work, man's legislative power, or a man's wages; but the world is moving at the speed of a click now and no country can afford to wait for human rights to evolve. We are moving toward greater communciation, greater need for ideas, greater need for education, and a greater need for collaboration and connections if we are going to work together to find solutions to the world's most imposing problems.

A country(theirs or mine) can't afford to write off half of its population. I am so inspired by the work of the Arab Sisters Forum, the leaders who have taken chances, and the verve and attitude I see in my daughter that I am determined to move from isolated conflict with people who don't know they have work to do, to work with the people who want to make a difference, because we don't have the time to do otherwise.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A part of me

I have been in about 3-4 meetings each day here in Yemen with NGOs, union officials, government officials (theirs and ours), and citizens and each meeting gets this country under my skin a little more than the last. Their problems are very well-defined, their hope is very real, but their actions seem extremely elusive. If the story of Tantalus were a country, it would be Yemen. Just when they are getting democracy off the ground, the 1st Gulf war strikes and they get an influx of extreme conservatives re-writing the agenda for women and country. Just when the Clinton administration shines a light on Yemen as an example of how the Middle East can incubate democracy, the Cole gets blown up in Aden, a Yemen port. Just as moderates begin coalescing, the 2nd Gulf war breaks out and conservatives use George Bush's reasoning that he is doing the will of God to claim that they are merely doing the same.

Their education issues (2 million students with no access to education--the majority of them girls, corruption is rampant, teachers have no uniform training when there is training offered at all, 100-150 students per class, 95% of the schools have no laboratories, 42% have no drinking water, 70% have no electricity) look insurmountable until you have seen where they were before. Fifteen years ago there were 4 boys attending school for every one girl, now there are 3 boys for every 2 girls. That is progress. Fifteen years ago about 70% of Yemen's women were illiterate, now that has fallen to 59%. That is progress. In 2006, 4 organizations cooperated to train 400 Yemen women to run for political office. Ultimately 140 actually ran, and 38 won (out of 7000 local elections country-wide). That is progress.

From at least 2 of the meetings I was in today (one with the Arab Sisters Forum, another with Islah opposition party officials) there is great determination to keep improving the condition of education overall, and specifically education for Yemen's girls. This determination is borne out of the realization that it is more than a human rights issue (which it has been acknowledged to be) but that is is an economic vehicle for a country that is going to run out of oil, run out of water, and run out of friends outside of the Middle East if it does not prepare for the 21st Century.

At our final meeting, I had an exchange that sums it up well. If the AFT is going to come in to Yemen to offer assistance to educators, the idea has to come from Yemen and they need to know what they need in an educational system that prepares this country for the future. If any one of us comes in and begins to offer something without listening first, or forcing the conversation among Yemenis first, then it is just a form of educational colonialism.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Not so much Likert as Maslow

The discussions between the Palestinian teachers from their teachers’ union and the Israeli teachers from their union couldn't have been more different.

The Palestinian teachers talked about not being paid a full salary for 18 months and having to strike for over 100 days in order to finally get one month of a full salary just this month. They did not separate the lives they lead, concerning the wall going up, the police, politics, their salaries, etc. with the conditions in which they teach.

The Israeli teachers’ union discussion was much more focused on professional evolution. They talked about pushing back reform efforts that were bad for education, how they found negotiating empowering enough that they didn’t have to resort to a strike, and how they were rolling out a plan to increase teacher pay by 30% largely by creating a salary schedule based on education and experience. The discussion included international standards, pensions, and governance. It makes me wonder if Maslow could create a hierarchy of teacher needs?

Blood mixed with ink

Getting a first hand account of the state of Baghdad after 4 years of war, completely undistilled for the first time, was sobering. The 5 teachers we met with, while very appreciative of being taken out of Iraq and brought to Jordan to meet with us thereby allowing for a few days of reprieve, could not stop thinking of their colleagues they left behind. Thousands of teachers and professors have left Iraq because they have seen their colleagues killed or terrorized. Parents are afraid to send their children to school because of the danger in getting there and the danger in staying there. Iraqi men are in prisons, killed, or afraid to leave their houses for fear of arrest. Teachers on their way to school are turned around by American soldiers and told to go back, which means that the children who have gone to school that day, have no teacher. One street in Baghdad named after a poet had many libraries “people’s blood was mixed with the book’s ink” as Abdul told it. They don’t have music, they don’t have art, and they don’t have theatres.

They are struggling to rebuild. They would like recognition in the international labor community as well as help rebuilding their domestic stature.

An injury to one...

There is a lot of work to do. I say that with the realization that all of us in the labor movement are on a continuum from complete oppression on one side to absolute social justice on the other. It is like a worker's Likert scale, because even thought there is much work to do here, that doesn't mean we abandon the improvements we want to our working conditions in the United States. We need to continually evolve and move forward on the continuum, or risk sliding back. Just because we can say "good thing we don't have to teach in a war zone" that doesn't mean we give up trying to earn meaningful staff development time. We do not use the abysmal working conditions of someone else to shrug our shoulders and say "I guess I have nothing to complain about." We use it to organize around the idea that we can and will simultaneously act as inspiration to others on the continuum and push the boundaries of where we are as professionals as well. That is what the labor movement is about: improving peoples' lives. Otherwise there would be no continuum; instead there would merely be a series of individual and independent experiences. The labor movement worldwide is a single experience for all of us still.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reform Fatigue

Although in my briefing this morning we had a strong discussion on the fate of immigrants who work in the textile industry in the Middle East, obviously much of my learning here is taking place around education. Fascinating and vexing facts have my thoughts in constant motion, like how it is illegal in most Middle Eastern countries for public school teachers to join a union, but it is okay for private school teachers. How the attitude toward immigrant populations in most countries here closely resembles some of the same sentiments expressed in the United States. Also, learning how women are struggling to be represented in the trade union leadership of industries where they over-populate the rank and file. While I will wrestle with all of those things, I think the thought that capivates me most today is the idea of "Reform Fatigue." The phrase came out today while I was at a briefing about Jordanian education at the US Embassy. We got a very thorough description of the educational reform movement in Jordan, and some anedotes that the reforms were not only overdue, but promising as well. Parent involvement, standardizing the curriculum between public and private schools, higher quality teaching standards (it has been common for college graduates with no education training to be hired in the past), more engaging ways of delivering material, and a new investment in 4-6 year olds seems to be the new black for Jordan, too. While all of these reforms seem to be met with enthusiasm, the professional briefing us said that so much is happening that teachers are suffering from "reform fatigue."

I was struck by that and I have carried that thought around with me all day because I think I know the symptoms. I have seen them in St. Paul teachers: an exasperated look in your eyes, surfing, self-medication with caffiene/chocolate/fill-in-the-blank, taking your cousin up on his invitation to come sell insurance with him, the occasional mental health day on a Friday, and a call to the union about yet another after school meeting. I think it is up to us to find a cure. We, as a collective group, should be able to say "Enough!" We need to be able to finish what we start before embarking on something else. The Indy 500 is won by driving one magnificent lap at a time. Support us to tune up, drop in that new engine, warm up those tires, and we will take it from there, but don't ask us to drive 5 cars at a time.

Vote for Petra!

It has been at least 2 months since I have worked on a campaign, so I was due and this is not only worth it, but I think the educational opportunities around this one are virtually limitless. The timing couldn't be better either. The UNESCO has a campaign to vote for the New 7 Wonders of the World, and Jordan is pulling out all the stops to get everyone who visits to vote for Petra. ( There are about 20 finalists vying for a place in the new 7 wonders and I am so captivated by their enthusiasm for Petra (as opposed to the wretched excess that is an Olympic bidding campaign) that I told a Jordanian today that I would send a note home encouraging all my friends to vote for Petra. He looked at me, got a big smile on his face, and said, "You will? That is so wonderful. Thank you very much!" So here is my pitch: Vote for Petra. If you are a teacher of any sort, then get your students into it. I have got to believe that learning about the finalists, diving into the arts/culture/literacy associated with each, running a school campaign to vote for the final 7, and posting the results all meet a host of standards. Certainly some national standards from various disciplines. The activity might be a little too rich for the mile wide, inch deep Minnesota Academic Standards. If you can work in some door knocking or a fund raiser, it's icing on the cake. Nonetheless, Vote for Petra!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

14 hours later

Flying along the sunset the plane tipped so that I could get my first glimpse of Jordan as we approached Amman. The land is the rich brown of cocoa spilled on a counter top. It looks peaceful as it glows with the last warmth of today's sun, while I am busy anticipating my landing in the desert. Fourteen hours of flying: reading guidebooks, briefing books, travel books, conversations brief, polite, powerful, and mundane; travel full of cute, curl-haired children; the bitter rest that is sleeping on a plane, and I find myself thirsty.

Right-handed dominance could be a problem for me. As someone who has been known to say, "I am so left, I'm left-handed" I think I am going to have to work extra hard to just remember to use my right hand, let alone master it. Luckily I am in good company as another woman is left-handed, too. We joked that it will be just one more offensive thing to add to the list of offensive things that may be expected of us as Western women. Let's hope not.

I was told at our briefing that as a Western woman I would be treated like an honorary man anyway. That's great, but until that comes with a US Senate seat, I would just as soon dress and behave in a way that helps me organize, gets me maximum access to people so I can learn about them and then figure out what, if anything, I can offer and what I can learn about myself.

We had a surprise and brief introduction to the Iraqi teachers we will be working with on Friday this evening. Although I am looking forward to our work with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center tomorrow, it is our time with these teachers I am most anticipating at this point.

Monday, May 21, 2007

I'm going to Yemen!

I wanted to let you know about an exciting opportunity in which I have been invited to participate. I am going to participate in a study tour of the Middle East as part of the Albert Shanker Institute mission of promoting democracy through democratic trade unions throughout the world. Learn more about the Albert Shanker Institute at I was invited as part of a 12 team delegation made up of AFT leaders and Institute staff. We will work in tandem with the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in Amman, Jordan, have the opportunity to meet with the Palestinian Teacher Union, Israeli Teachers Union and Iraqi teachers in Jerusalem, and then travel to Yemen for organizing and classroom instruction work with the Yemeni Teachers Syndicate.

As I meet with these teachers and union leaders, the members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers will never be far from my thoughts. The goals we have in common, the struggles we share, and the reason we chose education as our profession lay a common ground from which to begin a discussion of how to leave our profession and our world a better place because of the work we do. I am committed to bringing my experience back to benefit the members of SPFT and our state and national unions. I am also eager to have a meaningful impact on the goals of the Albert Shanker Institute because they are goals I share as well. I ask that you wish me luck in this journey and in meeting these goals as we all do the work of supporting and promoting public schools and our profession.


Mary Cathryn