Sunday, December 7, 2008

David Brooks' Reform School

For someone with national credentials, columnist David Brooks’ education policy naivety is staggering.

In a recent column Mr. Brooks started out by saying, “As in many other areas, the biggest education debates are happening within the Democratic Party. On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards. On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.”

And then it just bogged down into repeating the cliched good vs. evil, educational equivalent of those-people-hate-our-freedom, you’re either with us or against us, “I’m the decider” arguments with all the authenticity of a good round of pro-wrestling, feather boa notwithstanding.

Which contradiction is my favorite? It’s so hard to decide from the generous 31 flavors offered up by Mr. Brooks. The first one, of course, is that merit pay for teachers is so obviously good, but the “greater funding” that might actually serve as the revenue stream for that merit pay is bad.

Charter schools: good. The smaller class sizes found in virtually every charter school in the country: bad.

Secure and undisclosed “tough accountability standards” are good. “Superficial reforms” like tougher standards to get into our teaching profession are just the kind of accountability that students can clearly do without.

Yes Mr. Brooks, there are some things that educational funding can’t buy, but luckily for those of us rolling up our sleeves working to make public schools better, there’s common sense.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pass it on

I've had an email forwarded to me several times and so I thought I would post the general response to the points it raises.

The responses below do not represent a comprehensive overview of the PEIP proposal, just a response to the points raised by the original email. For a comprehensive overview, I invite you to attend an informational meeting.

(Email with my points in bold and Italicised.)
1. You have to choose one clinic as your primary clinic. You have to go to only that clinic unless you have a referral from your doctor to go some where else. I know you can change what you list as your primary clinic so many times a year, but I don't know how many.

Yes, you have to choose one clinic as your primary clinic. You can change primary clinics monthly.

2. You need a referral to go to any other doctor (like a specialist of some kind) that isn't in your primary clinic. When I asked if that requires only one referral, I was told the doctor would have to list how many times you could see that other doctor. If you need to see the other doctor more times than was listed on the original referral form you would have to get another referral. It's not a blank referral that would say you could see them as many times as needed for a year. They have to list how many times that would be. I was told by Gundy at the union office that the reason referrals are required is because by doing that it cuts down on how many times people go to a specialist that usually costs more. -If you're like me, you want/need the freedom to go to doctors you choose without a referral. No one really knows when something will happen that will require a specialist or how many times they will need to go.

Actually, referrals are not needed for the 5 most commonly referred situations: chiropractic care, OB/GYN, chemical dependency care, mental health care, and vision care. Those 5 areas are self-referral. Other areas of care need a referral from a primary clinic and that referral is set for the number of times your medical doctor determines is appropriate. Actually, doctors have been trained to have the expertise to know what might happen when you experience certain symptoms and have a general idea of the method and frequency of treatments. .

Depending on the relationship your doctor has with you specialist and/or you the re-referral can happen a few different ways. The specialist calls your doctor after your last visit and says “Re-refer Patient A because I’m not done treating Medical Issue B.” The specialist sends you back to your doctor or the specialist asks you to phone your doctor and ask for the re-referral.

Whether Gundy is right or not, I can’t say. I do know the medical community is concerned with self-diagnoses. Perhaps this is a way to catch someone who believes they have one ailment soon enough to treat them successfully for the correct ailment so perhaps the referral system is intended to provide someone with the proper care.

2. The rate or tier you pay for all doctors you see (even those specialists you are referred to) depends on the rating your primary clinic has. This includes hospitals. Every place you go to you will pay according to the level/tier your primary clinic has been assigned. -The doctor I like to see for all my pre-op exams and other things is at a clinic that is rated a level 3. That means I would have to pay that rate when I go to any of my other doctors too. Currently my specialists have a lower co-pay than my regular doctor has. I'm thinking most people wouldn't want to be locked in to paying at the one level or tier that their clinic is rated. Of course, there is the option of changing doctors & naming a lower level/tier clinic as their primary clinic, but not everyone would want to change doctors.

This looks accurate for this person’s situation. Co-pays, etc. are rated by the Tier your primary clinic is in. Just over 80% of the clinics in the PEIP network are Tier 2 clinics but clearly that leaves 20% of the clinics to be Tiers 1, 3, or 4.

4. The co-pay cost for same day surgery or hospital stay surgery is higher. - Here is how it works for the Health Partners Distinction plan . Currently if I have surgery and stay in the hospital I pay nothing for a co-pay at a level 1 hospital and $250 for a level 2 hospital. On the new plan I would have to pay $450 for an inpatient surgery because my primary clinic is considered a level/tier 3 clinic. Currently if I have outpatient surgery I pay a $25 co-pay at a level 1 hospital and $50 at a level 2 hospital. On the new plan I would pay a $220 co-pay for any hospital outpatient surgery due to the classification of my primary clinic. I realize that might not be the same for everyone depending on what rating their primary care clinic is given, but it's something to think about. None of us know when we will need surgery. I had hardly been to a doctor until I retired and found out I had b.c..

These numbers are true for someone in the Distinctions plan. Here are some other numbers that would be applicable comparisons from Distinctions to Advantage as well: Chiropractic care: $30 (with Wellness Initiative) vs. $27. Ambulance: 80% coverage vs. 95% coverage. Prescription drugs: $12 for generics vs. $10, $24 for brand name vs. $16, non formulary NOT COVERED vs. $36, OutOfPocket Max: NONE vs. $800. A comprehensive comparison reveals savings and costs from both plans, which would apply differently to different people.

I do appreciate that she realizes that this is not the same for everyone. In addition to everyone’s unique set of circumstances, there are about 1,200 people who don’t take Distinctions. Ultimately everyone must do what this person did and that is study it from their own vantage point to determine how they feel about the potential of switching to PEIP from the district health insurance pool.

5. The difference in monthly cost between the Health Partners Distinction plan we currently have and the higher level of the public employee plan is $31.89 for one person, $72.02 for a single + 1 plan, and $90.51 for a family plan.
I'm wondering if you're like me and feel the advantage of going to any doctor you want without a referral is worth the small additional cost. The referral part alone makes it worth it to me. All it takes is 50% + 1 vote to switch to the public employee plan so everyone's vote really counts.

The difference in monthly costs is accurate. However, one person’s couch change is another’s college savings account. It is difficult to tell a member with an $11 pay check after health insurance expenses that $32, $72, or even $90 isn’t worth it. It is equally difficult to tell someone scared that their cancer will re-emerge that it’ll all be fine.

Clearly access to affordable and high-quality health care is important to everyone or we wouldn’t have spent so much time at so many membership meetings in the last 3 years on this subject. It is also clear that some members want access and quality so affordability isn’t an issue to them. It’s also clear that some members want quality and affordability so access is less of an issue to them.

In the aggregate, we need to work toward a balance of access, affordability and quality that meets the needs of our members. We have been trying to do that through our legislative advocacy, our bargaining team work, and through investigating the Public Employee Insurance Program (PEIP).

Every vote is important. However, this vote continues our discussion on a suitable solution to affordable, accessible, and high-quality health care, it does not finish it. Our bargaining teams' work needs to continue and our legislative advocacy needs to continue as well.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Jeanne Sedgwick, Minnesota School Nurse of the Year!

NOTE: I need to take time out of our PEIP discussion to celebrate with everyone that Local 28's own Jeanne Sedgwick has been named Minnesota School Nurse of the Year by the School Nurse Organization of Minnesota. I was allowed to speak last night at Jeanne's award ceremony to congratulate her and so I'm sharing my comments below. Please join me in congratulating Jeanne and thanking all of our school nurses!

It is an honor to be here tonight to share my admiration with all of you for Jeanne Sedgwick. School nurses hold a very special place in education both for classroom teachers and for parents and I am eager to honor both Jeanne and all of you in either capacity. You may be familiar with Jeanne’s many leadership positions, from the Executive Board of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers to the American Federation of Teachers Health Care Program and Policy council. Leaders tap into Jeanne Sedgwick because of her positive attitude, her tenacious work-ethic, and her hopeful spirit grounded in a deep and powerful knowledge of good nursing

As grateful as I am to be one of those leaders who has Jeanne just a phone call away, I am much more humbled by the work she does for students. Students and families tap into Jeanne for many of the same reasons we do. They see her positive attitude as being consummately approachable. Her tenacious work-ethic is revealed in superior service to students in crisis and those with chronic conditions. Her hopeful spirit is evident to them by the sincere care she delivers, again all of this grounded in a deep and powerful knowledge of good nursing.

Amidst the health care crisis that pervades our communities and even our nation; in a state where we still seem to tolerate having over 80,000 children not covered by any insurance plan, school nurses stand ready with as many hours as you are given to be the first responders, the triage unit, and the urgent care center for our students. I know the work I did as a classroom teacher was more effective because of the school nurse in my building. I know that the work I do for all my members is made better by this school nurse on my executive board, and I know that the work of the School Nurse Organization of Minnesota will be made better with Jeanne Sedgwick as your school nurse of the year.

One of the ways the American Federation of Teachers advocates for students is by declaring "Every Child Needs a School Nurse." I think we can all agree that we need Jeanne Sedgwick, her attitude, work ethic, spirit and knowledge. On behalf of the membership of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, congratulations Jeanne!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Health Insurance Education

The calls and emails I have gotten in the last week from members have been a series of diverse questions about personal circumstances, budgetary bottom lines, fact-checking, and union solidarity. All of the communications have had one thing in common: Members doing their best to immerse themselves in the issue of the best health insurance policy for the best money.

It's been a pleasure listening to, talking to, and emailing everyone and it makes me look forward to our information sessions as well. A few things are very clear to me already:

  • Members are voraciously educating themselves to make the most informed decision possible.
  • Members want high-quality health care.
  • Members want affordable, accessible health care.

All this leads me to believe even more that we were right to put this decision squarely in members' hands. These things are not new. Almost from the day I started I have fielded emails and phone calls, presided over membership meetings and contract discussions, and listened to members at staff meetings and come to the same conclusion.

We want high-quality health care. We hate to see our colleagues denied treatments when a family doctor is over-ruled by a hospital administrator or use crossing their fingers as their deductible plan.

We want it to be affordable for everyone. It kills us to see our brothers and sister in our union and in other unions bringing home 75 cent paychecks or working 3 jobs so they can have health insurance AND an income.

We want it to be accessible. We don't want health care rationed one way or the other. We want sick people to get the attention they need to be well and we want healthy people to get the attention they need to stay that way.

We want to be informed. Time and again members will read about it, study it, question it, and then read it again. We want to make the most educated decisions possible.

The above conclusions have made me realize that we were right to put this decision squarely in the hands of members because we are acting fabulously like the labor union we are. When we are informed we make good decisions. We are the sort of people who care intrinsically about others so we want to make collective decisions for the common good.

Use this blog for any discussions you would like, attend an informational meeting at the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, and return that ballot (being mailed to you on October 20th with instructions) by October 29th at 5 p.m.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

More about PEIP

Health insurance, like your paycheck, is a serious and often emotional issue. We have been researching the possibility of the Public Employee Insurance Pool for about 15 months as one of a few promising opportunities to improve the affordability of high quality health care for all our members. This is fundamentally important to the St. Paul Federation of Teachers for at least two reasons, one close to home and one grounded in our community.

The cost of health insurance has taken up more and more of that other serious and emotional issue, your paycheck. When the two most serious and emotional issues converge upon our members it leads to some untenable situations. Some members are taking home a few dollars on their paychecks after paying for health insurance. We also have members who have taken their healthy children out of our health insurance pool and insured them on the open market with catastrophic deductible plans so they can afford to keep working in the district. Sadly, we also have former members who have severed employment with St. Paul Schools for a job in a district that offers more affordable coverage, even when that means a cut in salary because the member still takes home more money at the end of the month.

Improving the health insurance situation of our members is a start, not a solution. The other reason this decision is fundamentally important to us is grounded in the same reason we chose to work in a public school district in the first place. We determined our talent and then sought out a career that would leave the world a little better than the way we found it. Similarly, unions are formed to improve peoples’ lives. Finding more affordable health insurance for us will not stop our work to improve access to affordable and high quality health insurance for our students and their families where we can. Strong public schools rely on healthy communities and healthy communities don’t exist where there are disparities in health care. We know that even when we are successful in attaining affordable health insurance, our working conditions will not improve until our students and their families have the same high quality, affordable health care that we have.

We are committed to continuing our work in partnership with Take Action Minnesota to create an affordable health care system for all in Minnesota. We will support the work of Education Minnesota for broad-ranging health care solutions. Most importantly right now though, we are dedicated to making the PEIP proposal a thoughtful decision among our membership.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Public Employee Insurance Pool

Dear St. Paul Federation of Teachers Community:

The Executive Board of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers authorized a vote of the full eligible membership of every bargaining unit of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers to determine if we leave the school district health insurance pool and enter the Public Employee Insurance Pool.

We are excited to give you this power because we think it belongs to you. For 3 years I have heard stories, read emails and been copied on letters that have indicated you wanted something done about the rising cost of health insurance. We responded. We aggressively stepped up our efforts in advocating for a law that would form a statewide pool for all school employees as a way to control costs, sponsored by our state union Education Minnesota. We worked side by side with Take Action Minnesota to form a coalition of organizations with the common goal of affordable health care for all in the entire State of Minnesota that continues its work today, and we researched the possibility of the Public Employee Insurance Pool.

The result of 15 months of research and comparisons is this vote. We look forward to making this decision with you, not as the solution to the spiraling cost of health care, but as the start. We present it to you with the thoughtfulness of a contract settlement. We understand you need to measure it against your own situation and life circumstances and, as in contract settlements, we ask that you consider the possibility that this may be a moment, in the spirit of Margaret Mead, where one small group of people can, without a doubt, collectively improve our corner of the world.


Mary Cathryn D. Ricker, President
St. Paul Federation of Teachers, Local 28

For more information, visit and for meeting dates and cost and plan comparisons.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Do you like soup?

Do you like soup?

So began the beguiling fund raising pitch of my daughter this time last year. It was the first year that the fund raising spiel at her school took and she was into it. The salesperson/performer had razzle-dazzled her sufficiently that she just had to sell. She was compelled to. I had tried my best to deflect by setting the information on the kitchen counter, changing the subject, reading a book, but she imperceptibly found the material and then jumped me with the “Do you like Soup, Mom?” question.

I am like a lot of mothers, or at least enough like my own mom, to love my children through food, so I answered. Of course I liked soup. I loved making soup. Why do you ask? And then I saw the brochure in her hand. How had she done that? –so well? What had they turned her into? –so quickly? Could this talent be harnessed for good, or would her future be as some waifish, yet tough-as-nails repo woman squeezing delinquent student loan payments out of unsuspecting college grads?

And then I started to get angry. How long had the assembly taken? What class did you miss to attend? How much time will it take your teacher to collect this material each morning? She didn’t know the answers really, but I was seething inside with even more percolating. You want to go around the neighborhood to sell, Sweetheart? Let’s start at 1006 Summit Avenue. Let’s go to our state senator’s house, and then let’s call on our state house representative. Next, let’s do the state senator to the south of us.

You get the point.

The thing is, I don’t really think the Governor and our collective state legislature get the point. I’m not sure our Federal elected officials get the point. Our children are fund raising for their own education because the adults in charge of funding their education don’t have the collective nerve to raise the funds to keep them from hawking wrapping paper, frozen pizzas, and cheap plastic crap. Not to mention the soup.

How did this happen?! What brought us to this and why the hell aren’t we angrier about it?

I can remember selling an embarrassment of trinkets, fruit cakes, and sundries to fund my high school band program, but I got a trip to Hawaii for the Aloha Bowl out of the deal. My brother sold kitchen gadgets and other items to fund new football jerseys for his team. Maybe those were gateway sales for the big money that fund raising is today and for the laundry list of materials and personnel needed to be funded by fund raisers, but it is a crime when our students need to fund raise to afford writer’s notebooks, school supplies or a host of other necessities.

Now I have 2 children who had the pleasure of being freshly deputized as junior salespeople on behalf of their own education. I might have to interrupt their neighborhood turf-cutting discussion just long enough to drive them to the Governor’s Residence and knock on that door.

I hope he likes soup.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pawlenty of empty education ideas

I am struggling to understand how a man who can get a law degree and go on to become Governor can be so naive about what it takes to become a teacher.

Governor Pawlenty has prescribed yet another series of education initiatives short on details and long on rhetoric. Perhaps the most shallow is his nebulous idea of fast-tracking other professionals into teaching. First he thinks that the recruitment and training of teachers can be done without spending much, according to this morning's StarTribune article.

Ask any teacher, but especially those who have gone through traditional teacher preparation programs, and you will hear that they believe it should actually take longer and be more rigorous to become a teacher. They will especially point to what can be precipitously short student-teacher assignments, one of the most crucial links to long-term teacher success as well as a powerful testing period to assure that the profession of teaching will stick.

What you need to know is that moving from a handful of weeks of student teaching to a high quality internship program is going to cost money. It is unconscionable to ask someone to leave their current job to practice teaching full time for 10 months and not expect to compensate them somehow. In short, asking them to commit themselves to the best internship experience possible and expect them to balance a part-time job at the same time is sinister.

Furthermore, Governor Pawlenty is quoted in the StarTribune as saying that mid-career professionals "...shouldn't have to go back to college for four years or six years to be certified to teach."


Since when has any mid-career professional ever had to go back to school for 4-6 years? Even the longest, most comprehensive traditional post-baccalaureate teacher preparation programs are about 18 months long. The naivety of his comment should frighten all of us who care about this profession and the students we are committed to serving by becoming teachers.

There are over 70,000 experts in the state of Minnesota who have gone through traditional teacher preparation programs as well as used emergency waivers to enter the teaching profession and have then been able to test the strength of their preparation against the real-life, daily rigors of the job and every time I talk to them they have very thoughtful ideas about how to make preparation better.

The Governor needs to ask for these expert opinions, but then he has to want to hear the ideas.

How that conversation went...

Monday night a cross section of members from across the district attended the meeting I called to discuss the powerpoint document that Superintendent Meria Carstarphen sent out to everyone on September 4th. (access the document at

Members were receptive to my analogy of this being our 'Ed Harris moment' from Apollo 13 where he retorts to a panicked and paralyzed Mission Control, "With all due respect gentlemen, I think this could be NASA's finest hour." However, even though the members present wanted to resist the-sky-is-falling stark statistics and find jumping off points for opportunity, the mood was one of resignation.

The overall assumption is that decisions have been made and they will be revealed to us on a need to know basis. The perception of an educational October Surprise is hard to overcome, but until such plans are actually revealed we have no choice but to press forward engaging our members in discussions about this information.

What are our ideas for improving our schools at the same time we address the concerns raised by these numbers? How will we at teachers and educational assistants and school/community service professionals engage parents in a discussion, too?

Can we make hard decisions and come out of it stronger? Can this be our finest hour?

Only if we're allowed into Mission Control to help guide this ship.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Conversation about the Future of St. Paul Schools

Recently I sent out an invitation for members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers to attend a meeting tomorrow (4 p.m. at the SPFT office) to begin discussing the 100+ page document that Superintendent Meria Carstarphen sent out on September 4th.

The Superintendent's email compiled a lot of statistics relevant to the health of our district: busing costs, student populations, building capacity, etc. What the email didn't do was outline our issues definitively or suggest solutions. Reading between the lines the document certainly seems to suggest that we have busing cost issues, space issues, recruitment issues and more.

What the document didn't suggest was what opportunities may reside in those numbers or what solutions may exist and while there has been a repeated commitment to engage the public around these numbers, I didn't want to wait for someone to ask us.

I am holding the meeting tomorrow because I think our membership could have the keys to some of these solutions. At the very least we should not wait for someone to engage us in any fears, questions or uncertainty this data about our district may raise. At the most someone should ask us what we think and ask if we can make this district better with our ideas and based on our experience in and commitment to St. Paul Public Schools.

I am excited to begin this conversation with members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. I just hope our union isn't the only one asking our members for this conversation. That would be a waste of the talent and energy of over 3,600 people and a huge loss to St. Paul Public Schools and our community.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What should school leadership look like?

Today I am meeting with the AFT's Program and Policy Council and we began our day with this question. It was a valuable discussion because right now this question is being answered by everyone but teachers and our unions.

School leadership should include teachers as instructional leaders and it should include thoughtful and intentional collaboration.

Albert Einstein was credited with saying that we cannot simultaneously prepare for and prevent war. In the same way, teachers and educational support professionals cannot expect to carry out a sincere welcome and collaborative learning environment so that every student feels valued when we are drowning in the pervasive message that says we are not valued.

When people running school districts publicly state that education reform doesn't get anywhere when you cooperate with teachers, Like Washington, DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee said recently, I think we need to ask right back, "and how's it working for you to fight with teachers all the time?" Really. Where does that get you? And what does that do for students?

School leadership must start with collaboration, or it's not leadership; it's a military junta. We can be lead by leaders or we can be ruled by dictators, but we can't have both and I will not stand for people who do one thing but call it another for publicity sake.

So, what should school leadership look like?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

BIG news, Our Future, and the AFL-CIO

It seems that the St. Paul Federation of Teachers is surrounded by big news and we are in the thick of just about all of it.

First, the Superintendent has sent out a very comprehensive power point presentation that invites us to have a conversation about out future. Because so many members have been talking and/or asking about this we have scheduled a conversation to begin at the St. Paul Federation of Teachers on September 22nd at 4:15 p.m. because I think we are uniquely suited to begin this conversation about what will make our good school district great.

I have also been completely unapologetic in my blatant co-opting of Ed Harris' best line of Apollo 13 in insisting that, with all due respect, "this could be our finest hour" rather than a meek opportunity for hand-wringing and shoulder shrugging: two of my LEAST favorite pastimes.

I also just returned from the Minnesota AFL-CIO convention where one of the resolutions we passed concerned improved state funding for public education. While I absolutely agree that we need funding that is equitable, sustainable, predictable, and sufficient; I want to make sure that we define those things in a way that allows the St. Paul Public School District to meet the needs of the gorgeous cross-section of students we teach. It is up to us to make sure we are at the table to help define those characteristics.

Finally, the highlight of the AFL-CIO convention, indeed the highlight of St. Paul for the last 3 years, was Mayor Chris Coleman. Not only did the Mayor address the need for development and healthy labor relations both as economic development tools and city vitality, he spent considerable time outlining how he sees his job as a complement to our school work, not as usurping it. The Mayor stressed again and again how he looks to learn how to do things for teachers and for our school district rather than doing things to us without our input.

All of these current events point to opportunities for members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers to lead in our community.

I'm looking forward to it. I look forward to us.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ask me

The coverage of education issues and ideas in the presidential race is inconsistent at best. Probably because both candidates have chosen to focus on the Iraq war, the economy and energy matters instead. When education is talked about, as I have said here before, it is usually to use the phrase "teacher's union" as an expletive.

I, for one, am done with that.

There is no topic I would rather mobilize my members around more than their own, phenomenal expertise.

When you want to improve heart surgery, do you pull together a group of legislators or do you pull together some with-it heart surgeons?

If you wanted to develop an amazing, efficient and accurate software program for accounting, would you ask the National Governor's Association or recognized CPAs?

Let's say you wanted to design more durable heat shields for the space shuttle, would you focus group some college professors or engineers?

Pardon the rhetorical nature of all of the above, but why in John Dewey's name, are teachers the only group that is ever left out of the education reform discussions? Why are teacher's unions locked out of the secure and undisclosed brainstorming sessions around improving learning?

Why are you so scared of us?

We're teachers for Harriet Bishop's sake. We wear denim jumpers with wooden beads, our earrings resemble school houses, and we keep cardigan sweater manufacturers in business. Sometimes we wear our sandals with socks and ride our bikes to school in the snow.

Our summer vacations include fossil hunting, monuments of the Revolutionary War, and standing in awe of textbook examples of glacial moraines. We are over-represented in populations that collect state-specific quarters.

We are the sort of people who earn our National Board Certification for fun and buy bean seeds, potting soil, and Dixie Cups every spring for our class when we read Paul Fleishman's SeedFolks.

We're the people who put Newbery winners on the best seller list and write grants for all of our phy ed students to have their own pedometers.

We've been meeting for coffee and lesson planning on Saturday mornings long before that would have been called a Professional Learning Community and we run canned food drives, penny drives, book drives, winter coat drives and mitten drives.

We knit scarves and hold fund raisers to buy extra milk for our students.

On top of that, we hold video-conferences with scientists and astronauts. We bring professional writers and musicians in to work directly with our students.

We scrape together money to bring our students to the Weisman Art Museum in collaboration with other districts to improve cultural understanding and desegregate our learning. We help students turn current events into poetry, artwork, theater or dance.

We pull history out of literature and sentence fluency out of history. We tap into multi-genre writing to foster inter-disciplinary thinking. We demonstrate to students how a bill becomes a law by making blueberry the Official State Muffin.

So get over it. Don't let the denim jumper and overhead marker stains fool you.

We are the expertise for which you have been looking.

Just ask me. Better yet, ask my members.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Discipline Toolbox

So, rumor has it that the teachers in one of our schools have been told that the discipline policy this year is that they are forbidden to send out any of their students from class at any time. For any reason. It has been deemed verboten to ask a student to leave no matter how creatively they conjugate certain Anglo-Saxon normatives and no matter the volume of the oral conjugation. No matter what.


I was told that when teachers spoke up to ask about those extreme behaviors that happen from time to time, they were told 'that's what you all have a toolbox of management ideas for. Unless there is a weapon involved or a student is seriously hurt use something from your toolbox.'


I almost don't know where to start with this one. I am tempted to start with the word "seriously" because it is begging for definition. As in, when you say "seriously hurt," exactly how conscious should the student be? Like, "It seems like he suffered a concussion, but it looked moderate, not serious." Do we quantify the loss of bodily fluids in categories? As in, "I would have sent her out of class but the blood loss was minor, not serious." However, the whole edict is so absurd that I struggle to focus.

Of course the toolbox comment is out of line, too. Obviously, we all have a toolbox for 95% of the behaviors we experience (which is why we don't send out 30 out of 32 students all the time, we only send out 2 of 32 students from time to time, for example) but we need support for those 5% of behaviors that we don't have the time, space, skill, wit, mutant gene, language, super power, Kevlar, or strength to handle.

We cannot, CANNOT, be expected to accurately predict, prevent, or react to 100% of the misbehavior we encounter 100% of the time while simultaneously teaching to a standard that we've written in kid-friendly language and posted on our wall, entertaining, requesting iPods-cellphones-pdas are put away, heterogeneously grouping, monitoring, adjusting, checking for understanding, watching for spitballs, picking up paperclips, handing back assignments, quieting students down for announcements, requesting about the iPods again, handing out a bathroom pass, diagnosing an illness as worthy of a school nurse visit or not, lending pencils, lending paper, collecting assignments, recording student wonderings on chart paper, collecting paper footballs, getting the box fan to blow on the students equally(or rotating equally who gets to sit by the heater), and answering the phone when the office calls.

Regardless, classrooms should never feel like they could even possibly become mere holding pens where the clock slows to a crawl as you pray for the period to end so that the belligerent student you can't send out, but who has successfully destroyed your lesson, your class, and your morale, can finally leave.

Luckily, we are at that beginning-of-the-year infatuation stage where anything is still possible and I think our student conduct contract language on page 66 is just the place to start. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers will be working with this building to fix this problem, and if you'd like, I'll keep you posted on our progress.

In the meantime, it looks like telling you to put cape on your back to school list a few entries ago could come in handy, couldn't it?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Teacher's Answer

I still find myself steamed at these education reformers who believe that education can be reformed by a rap on your knuckles with a ruler from some ivory tower or elected position, rather than from engaging teachers in discussions about what works to teach students and what fails to teach them. There is enough rhetoric about what needs to be done to teachers once they are finished with that ruler to fill an iPod. Merit pay, stricter accountability, abolishing tenure, unsustainable pilot programs, and the list goes on.

Tonight John McCain said, in a tone that suggested he thought it was a brand-new idea, that when he is president finally “teachers will answer to parents and students.”

Uh…Roger that John, except for the part where you think teachers don’t answer to parents and students. And except for the part where you listed parents before students. Teachers do answer to students and parents John, in that order. We always have. It’s why we got into this gig. We love our subject matter, we have a talent for teaching, and we picked an age level that dove tails with our talent.

All of you, John McCain included, can get over yourselves falling over each other to see who can insult teachers and our unions first and best.

Let me get this right, Sarah Palin can refer to her husband as a proud member of the Steelworkers, but I should somehow be ashamed to be a member of the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association?

And another thing, in the last 30 years you have been responsible for writing some of the most neglected education law in our country. In the last 30 years you have been responsible for under funding some of the most promising education laws in our country. Yet, somehow, teachers are the problem of the last 30 years of education? Say more about that…

We are teaching the children and young adults in our community. With the talent and care we bring to our jobs. With the resources we have. And with the determination to leave this world better than the way we found it. And we are represented by a union. So you can stop treating us like we’ve somehow gamed our way onto your 6-figure, platinum health care senate gravy train, John.

I believe in our members so strongly that I left the classroom I love to work for a better profession for all of us. Because the teachers, educational assistants, and school & community service professionals who believe in our work are also workers who deserve rights. Therefore, I will not apologize for working for more affordable health care. I will not apologize for wanting my members to be able to own a home in our community. I will not apologize for providing due process to members to inoculate them from unfair, vindictive, or bullying bosses. So help me God.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Mary Cathryn, St. Paul. First time caller, long time listener...

Yesterday our Governor spoke to a group about educational issues at "Time to Choose-- Children or the Bureaucracy" assembled by a 527 group founded by Newt Gingrich called American Solutions for Winning the Future. It has been reported that Pawlenty said that the government should work with teachers' unions to "accelerate changes" (StarTribune, 9.03.08) in education. He added that he couldn't "leapfrog" a group like Education Minnesota in a state like this.

I would like Governor Pawlenty to list the changes, accelerated or otherwise, that he has brought forward in partnership with Education Minnesota. The only one he seems to tout with any regularity is Q-Comp, but that is just TAP-- the Teacher Advancement Program (a Milken Family Foundation brainchild) --turned into legislation. There is nothing breath-taking or new about the ideas fostered by Q-Comp. In fact, I would argue that the St. Paul Public School District had the potential of being much more innovative with the well over $21 million increase of district health insurance premiums in the last few years than we ever could with the almost $9 million we would get in Q-Comp funding if we were interested. But neither the Governor nor our school board wanted to "accelerate changes" to a more innovative health insurance pool.

As a result the money goes into the black hole of a Health Partners renewal rather than
  • buying down class sizes,
  • assuring a school nurse for every child,
  • providing every child with physical education and a licensed librarian/media specialist,
  • offering teachers a common professional learning period commensurate to our planning period built into our school day,
  • adding professional days to the school year,
  • offering more innovative summer school options and school calendars, or
  • improving professional development for educational assistants.

Which still leaves my question to be answered: What changes has the Governor actively worked with Education Minnesota to accelerate?

I'll take my answer off the air.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Welcome to St. Paul-RNC

The Republican National Convention opens in St. Paul tomorrow and I want and expect my city to shine.

I hope this becomes the world’s opportunity to see St. Paul as the sort of city that is open for business. While I trust the conventioneers will enjoy the plethora of things that make St. Paul a fabulous place to hold any convention, from our high quality restaurants, our promising entertainment venues, first-rate facilities, and I might add our excellent selection of local beers, I hope they have the opportunity to discover the other things that make St. Paul among America’s most livable cities.

I hope they can spend time enjoying our sterling city park system, notice our vibrant and distinct neighborhoods, marvel at our brilliant array of residents, appreciate our city leadership, travel the varied miles of our bike paths, and find out about our hard-working, high-quality, comprehensive pre-K through university schools, especially our up-and-coming St. Paul Public School District.

If they do, they might just decide to stay awhile.

I should know. I came to St. Paul from the Iron Range for college. I returned to St. Paul after time in Washington State, Oregon and South Korea to raise my family and teach. Being able to experience “all of the above” makes it easy not only to believe in St. Paul, but to live here, too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Barack Obama makes history for all of us

After a meeting earlier today, a colleague was conveying to me that his 6 year old son wanted to vote for Barack Obama. When his dad asked him “Why?” the 6 year old said, “Because his skin is brown like mine, Dad.” His father was a bit in awe.

At 7:07 p.m. tonight my phone buzzed with a text message and it was an SPFT member with the message: “It’s done. The first African American has just been nominated for president. History in the making!” Her joy was palpable.

I would argue that while the nomination is, in fact, done we are actually on the cusp of much more beginning in every other way for our country.

These things reminded me that this is not just any night for some people. Quite frankly, this should not be just any night for any of us.

It makes me that much more excited for our Obama Acceptance Speech Party tomorrow night at the Como Park Picnic Pavilion from 7:30 to 10 p.m. This is an event to watch with community, in the community.

Please join me!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Teachers are My Heroes

I was sent a link to a blog this morning that I spent an inordinate amount of time perusing. While doing that I came across a website of Democrats for Education Reform (, which listed their heroes in education

Most of the Heroes in the Democrats for Education Reform group were folks who champion charter schools. As someone who lives in the charter school capitol of North America, I understand that they are not vanishing from the landscape anytime soon. However, to believe that the only champions of education reform are those “daring enough” to be in the charter school movement is naive.

While charter schools will always have a place in education discussions, school districts will not be vanishing anytime soon either. School districts will continue to educate the majority of America’s children for a long, long time. In fact, I would argue that peering into the myriad of practices and school choice within a school district (let’s take mine, for example) will reveal some of the most promising educational practices of this century at the practitioner and school building level.

I would argue, with the St. Paul School District’s comprehensive city-wide district options, with St. Paul as the cradle of charter school law, and with our affordable parochial school system that there isn’t a better incubator of school choice in the country. Yet, an overwhelming majority of parents still choose St. Paul Public Schools. Why? Because we still do the best job of educating children. We are comprehensive enough to meet every child’s needs. We are small enough to be light on our feet to innovate. We tend to attract high quality, experienced teachers. We have smart, dedicated educational assistants.

Perhaps, no school district can truly meet every families needs, and so I will admit that the mother looking for the music-based, Montessori, Russian-immersion, 4 day week elementary school experience for her child will sadly be out of luck in St. Paul (for now), the students who stay with St. Paul Public Schools truly will graduate to something great.

Our high quality teaching force is a major reason for that success, and our teaching force is also first to reflect on what could be done better. Why else, with a pressure-cooker atmosphere and magnifying glass accountability, would I run in to teacher after teacher this opening week saying things to me like, “I’m ready” or “I’m excited” or “I can’t wait to start”?

These teachers are union members, they are my heroes, and I am honored to represent them.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fever? Medicate with a corn dog!

Just in time for the Great Minnesota Get-Together is a little health care advice. Make sure in all those steps you are walking (and no doubt logging on your flashy, trendy, go-with-anything, cheap-plastic-crap-is-the-new-black pedometer) that no harm comes to you if you are fortunate enough to attend the State Fair. You see, your school board is hard at work making Minnesota safe for the affordable corn dog, rather than the affordable urgent care visit from the regrettable results of one too many of them.

It is critical for our school board to address, in a public and meaningful way, the runaway costs of our health insurance. Yet, another legislative session went by without one instance of our school board supporting our efforts to find a solution to the rising health insurance costs that are devouring our district’s budget. Additionally, another renewal period for health insurance is upon us and still our school board remains quiet.

It is hard not to be insulted by their silence when the best collaboration they can offer is from the July 15th board meeting where they authorized a joint purchasing agreement with North Branch Area Schools “in order to further collaborative efforts and to enhance both districts’ buying power by participating in cooperative purchases, bids and contracts.”

Once again they have proven that they put a premium on saving money on corn dogs and copy paper, but they are absolutely content to turn their backs on any significant discussions on health insurance, let alone offer a solution. It is clear that they are comfortable allowing health insurance to continue festering the morale and working conditions of the member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

But, hey, I bet that corn dog will go down nicely with some ketchup, and then you’ve added a vegetable.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gotta light?

I seem to be a little in the dark here, not the first time and surely not the last, but I was just told by a teacher that she cannot have the lights on in her room when she comes into her building to work before opening week next week.

Some buildings were completely shut down this summer to save energy and despite the fact that principals and clerical staff reported for work on August 4th (with office lights, I hope) teachers who came in early to work were told that the lights would remain off until teachers officially reported back on August 25th.

For as long as I can remember teachers have been coming in to school in August to begin setting up our rooms, deliver school supplies purchased over the summer, or to meet with other teachers to plan. I have occasionally been asked to leave because of a mammoth construction project that wasn't quite finished yet, but this is the first time I have ever heard of someone not being allowed to use their lights until their contract year actually started.

It will be interesting to see if there is a mandatory "lights off" period when the school year starts. That sure would make "work to rule" easier to implement for our union.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


It was a weird goodbye ceremony today at the end of our week-long professional development class. After six teacher presentations that varied in quality, and a Yemeni television interview (“What do you think of the teachers you worked with? What are your future plans to work with this union?), we were treated to a completion ceremony where the president the General Union for Teaching and Education Professionals spent the better part of 10 minutes saying that he was not a liar, he does not associate himself with liars, he would not be sitting next to us if he was a liar, and may he never have the opportunity to be in the same room with us again if he is ever caught lying.

Well, now that we established that, I realized we got his show because we worked with the Yemeni Teachers Syndicate (their rival union and I suspect the aforementioned liars…) the week before them. He made it clear that he has no intention of recognizing them, let alone working with them. They obviously do not get along, so when it was my turn to speak I told them a story a friend of mine pointed out years ago. My friend said to me, “We could spend all day with you arguing that your football team is better and me arguing that my football team is better, or we could decide that it’s great that we both like football.”

As much as the fact that he was a Packer fan bugged me, he had a good point: One that I have tried to live by in many situations since that day. It is most applicable in my teaching life: growing up, in St. Paul, and here.

I grew up in an “FT” household. Over the years I watched my dad and his friends organize to get a majority of members in the Hibbing Federation of Teachers so they could bargain the next contract and I heard them grouse when they didn’t feel they were represented at the table. But when it came time for me to join the SCEA in St. Cloud, no one encouraged me more than my dad. When I moved back from the West Coast and Korea, it seemed to me that no one was more ready for the merger of the MFT and the MEA than my dad and the others who had lived through those years of bitterness and rancor. In Minnesota we had finally decided to stop arguing about whether my union was better or your union was better and decided to think it was great that we all wanted a better future for Minnesota’s students together as Education Minnesota.

I hope that the Yemeni Teacher’s Syndicate and the General Union of Teaching and Education Professionals decide someday that, despite these hard feelings that seem like they will never go away, they will think it is great that they all want a better future for Yemen’s children together.

I want that for them, too. And I was glad I was here to tell them that it can be done.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Teacher Interrupted

You know your teaching has suffered a lot of interruptions when you find yourself wishing for the sanguine moments of a burgeoning learning walk of 15 adults whisking through your room merely wondering.

Our last day of teaching in Yemen is tomorrow and every day we have had multiple interruptions. The president of the union has stopped by every day and every day when he comes in he walks around to greet certain attendees genially and then says a few words to everyone. Today he interrupted us to say that he was inviting everyone to lunch in our honor, which brought spontaneous applause. That was in the middle of a lesson.

The president also brings random dignitaries in from the Sana’a Secretariat Education Ministry, the Government Oil and Mineral Ministry (?), and various others, who then also get to say a few words to us and the group assembled about how much they believe in education and how much they support teachers. Now granted, I’m not an administrator, nor have I played one on TV, but a little something I picked up from a couple principals I used to teach for: If you really want to support teachers, then let us actually teach! Criminy, what a concept!

On top of that, there are these random principals of different neighboring schools (this training is being held in a school) who are stopping by and insisting that we come for a tour during our breaks. The first principal who stopped by admonished us, “Why aren’t you holding your training in my school?” as if I had control of where the training was going to be held. One principal hounded us to 2 days to visit his school. On the bright side, the planets aligned enough that when we taught the “Time on Task” portion of our professional development we had secured a killer teachable moment. We gave them the definition and example of allotted time. “For example, we have from 12:45 to 2p.m. allotted in the schedule to teach you between these breaks. When you didn’t drive us back from the school visit until 1:05 and then we had a visit from Mr. Minister for 5 minutes, we lost 25 minutes of our allotted time. What then happened to our engaged time commensurately?”

This time, I don’t think anything was lost in translation.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Will a spoonful of sugar help?

I suppose today could be characterized as a small dose of my own medicine. Amber and I began our training today offering the same professional development agenda to a new group, the General Union of Teaching and Educational Professionals (GUTEP).

Our first day with our new group today was a little more raucous. I felt a little more like I was teaching 7th grade again because there were many points where adults from every corner of the room were vying for our interpreter’s questions, so he could not focus on any one of them let alone us. That classroom management issue was only part of our struggle, however. There were also lots of experts in the room who raised their hand for the floor to expound on what they had learned in their last graduate class. Folks who listened to our ideas and then spent a considerable amount of energy coming up with reasons for why it couldn't be done in their classrooms rather than brainstorming how they might actually apply the idea. We even got the classic “Do I have to work with this group?” which, trust me, translates without interpretation even through a veil. Of course, none of these behaviors are exclusive to Yemen. All of them deserve diagnosing and some of them even deserve ownership.

I intend to own some of this professional development misbehavior because I believe my students were telling me something. They were struggling in various places to connect to our agenda and to see how it is relevant to their professional lives. I made a classic teaching mistake. I didn’t differentiate my agenda and I did not take their place along the learning continuum into account when planning this agenda. The agenda that was like a hot knife through butter for last week’s group (because it hit their zone of proximal development I would guess) fizzled out a bit on the first day because their needs hadn’t been assessed beforehand.

We had been told (as those professional developers who are flown in from afar often are) that the assessment of what these teachers needed had already been done and they just needed us to deliver the content of what was needed. We just needed to develop a five day training on classroom management, interactive direct instruction, time on task, and (whew) teacher praise to deliver to 2 different groups. Well, like the oldest definition of accountability in the book, no one knows a lesson is bombing faster than a teacher 2 minutes into class with 30 pairs of eyes looking to be simultaneously educated and entertained and feeling like they are getting neither education nor entertainment.

Amber and I scrambled to retool during both of our breaks and we worked through tonight for tomorrow’s lesson, but we are left second-guessing whether this group is getting what it needs from us. Right now we will just have to create more of a connection at the beginning of each lesson when we assess their prior knowledge. We will have to scaffold a little more critically. I don’t think our agenda is fatal and I have confidence that we can salvage meaningful and relevant learning for these students.

I know I will have fresh appreciation for those emailed agendas of professional development days and comments at membership meetings from the members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Additionally, if every experience, good or bad, is supposed to teach you something, I will make sure that this experience teaches me how to be an even better advocate for high-quality, meaningful professional development. Ultimately, for the members of SPFT that is going to include better contract language. Immediately, for the GUTEP teachers, that is just going to mean a little more work on my part. In the most delightful way.

Friday, August 8, 2008

What would we do if we knew we would not fail?

I have that phrase on some paper weight in my house. I bought it because I love the line it draws in the sand. It challenges me to be daring, creative, a little courageous everyday. I know that I am not daring, creative, or courageous everyday. Although, it’s a great day when I find out exactly what I cannot fail at. Union work is about knowing when to pick that fight and knowing when to save your energy for the fight you are going to have to pick. Union work is also about reacting to a fight that gets picked with you. Union work is knowing when to stand in solidarity with someone and knowing when to ask for help.

I didn’t start this summer thinking I was going to Yemen, that I would need to actively defend the Employee Free Choice Act, or that I would get so fed up as to wash my hands of any remnant of No Child Left Behind at all. I did know that I was going to spend the summer connecting members with each other and our national affiliates. I knew I was going to make our ambitious professional development goals a reality. I knew I was going to spend time building our union’s ability to endorse and campaign for key state house seats, Al Franken, and Barack Obama.

As full as that plate is for the summer, I think the St. Paul Federation of Teachers has just begun to uncover our potential to answer that question collectively.

Tomorrow, Amber Prentice and I are going to lead the official Yemeni teacher’s union (GUTEP) through a series of exercises that evolve from “What are some common concerns facing your teachers?” through “How can this professional development class help your union?” We hope we have set up the time to be transformative and to bring them a perspective on union work we have been told that they’ve never had. In essence, we are asking them to name what they would do if they knew they would not fail.

Professional development is a union’s work and it is impossible for us to fail at it. We have the talent, the tenacity, and the collective strength within our ranks to set up powerful learning communities because a union already is a professional learning community.

Which leads me to ask the members of SPFT, what else would we do if we knew we would not fail?

I’m looking forward to hearing your answers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Note to Yemeni School Teachers:

Seeing the culmination of your efforts today in your professional development presentations and plans was inspiring. I want you to know that you have much in common with teachers in St. Paul.
  • You attend professional development and get excited about new ideas despite persistently large class sizes.
  • You are eager to share ideas with your colleagues despite a demoralizing lack of safe and healthy buildings.
  • You are eager to learn new ideas from your colleagues despite crippling financial shortages in education.
  • You are not afraid of accountability despite administrative favoritism, student threats, and parental influence.
  • You belong to your union and you look for ways that you can work as a union member to improve your working conditions and student learning conditions.
  • You have entered the profession to make a difference to your community and the future of your country or as a way of giving back for what opportunities your community or country gave you.
I look forward to the day when I can introduce you to St. Paul teachers, and in solidarity, we can work together.

A Note to St. Paul Public School Teachers:

After reading a few emails from teachers about AYP scores and/or the coverage that came from them, I am compelled to talk about this measurement system. These scores are designed to fail more and more schools. They are not designed to be encouraging to anyone.

That is what leads good people to say things like “We'll have to do more faster,” as an apology for the gains that students of St. Paul Public Schools made as not being large enough. Just as an FYI, we’ll be doing more faster with less money. We’ll be doing more faster with fewer educational assistants. We’ll be doing more faster with fewer social workers. We’ll be doing more faster with some of the lowest morale these buildings have ever seen.

Our students will be doing more faster with less physical education, less music, and less art. Our students will be doing more faster with fewer properly licensed library media specialists and less library time. Our students will be doing more faster with fewer enrichment opportunities.

Designing a measurement system with 16 ways to fail and only one to succeed, with an artificially chosen end date, with mandatory implementation but optional and capricious funding is malpractice. We need to recognize this is a measurement system that was designed to kill public education.

Admitting anything else is educational Stockholm Syndrome.

Don’t forget to put “red cape” on your school supply list. Last time I saw someone do this much more faster he was battling Lex Luthor.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Measuring Progress

Today Adequate Yearly Progress(AYP) data was published for schools in St. Paul and across Minnesota, but that doesn’t tell the story of student learning. Unfortunately the scores that get reported are rather capricious, snapshots of a day. Many people will fret over these scores nonetheless, but I will focus on some encouraging news coming out of Ohio State University. It seems researchers there have studied a value-added way of measuring student learning that is promising and relevant to what matters in education. ( -for the archived story- Ohio State University researchers' study suggests new way of measuring school quality, by Scott Stephens)

While their study measurement is still intensively test-based, their rationale is student based. Test a student at the beginning of the year and test them at the end of the year. The end of the year measurement is then used to determine how well that school year went. When the student returns the next fall, the beginning of the school year test will be used to measure student learning over the summer or flag any student loss of learning over the summer so it can be corrected as soon as possible. This could be powerful information to a teacher just starting with the student in organizing group work, individualized instruction, and enrichment opportunities.

The test scores published today don't deserve the word adequate. Unless you like to punish people, then I suppose it is adequate.

Monday, August 4, 2008


Must of the time the statistics and situations I find in Yemen cause me to stagger a bit. The unemployment rate, literacy, lack of access to education for girls, but today I came across something that gave me perspective.

As it often does, this perspective made me very hopeful, in this case for the future of Yemen.

I was reading the August 2nd edition of the Yemen Observer, a weekly English language newspaper here, ( or for the Arabic version try and the front page story was about President Saleh using the occasion of celebrating a national college graduation to call for more education reform. I could have stopped at that headline, just assuming I could have written the article myself considering the plethora of ‘education reform’ headlines that have come and gone in the United States in the last 10 years. However, I’m glad I kept reading on.

Yemeni reporter Mohammed al-Kibsi quoted some fairly encouraging statistics. The president had said “that 46 years ago there was not even a single university in Yemen and that only a few people” even finished a high school program. The university graduation ceremony President Saleh presided over had 28,400 graduates just in 2008. Yemen now counts over 240,000 university graduates in their country. Up from zero 46 years ago. They now have 8 universities in Yemen, when 46 years ago they didn’t have any.

Yemen is still direly short of trained teachers. Girls are still dropping out of school at rates that should make all of us blush with shame. There is still a critical fresh water supply problem, but it was good to take a minute to celebrate this progress for Yemen.

As we have a habit of saying when we see good data, this is trending in the right direction. Yemen has an opportunity to set an ambitious goal of college access for everyone within the next generation. Maybe we can even be successful enough with our work in St. Paul to show them how it’s done.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Arabic Numbers

Maybe this is a question more for my dad than my blog in general, but here goes. Why was I taught when I was little that the numbers we most commonly use in the United States are called Arabic numbers?

Our numbers look not much at all like Arabic numbers and yet, I grew up calling them Arabic numbers.

Yesterday, Amber and I did, what we thought, was an extremely easy addition assignment of 8+8 just so we could demonstrate how to use some note cards as manipulatives to report answers. When we asked the teachers to hold up their answers, some held up 16, because, well that’s the right answer and, they wrote it in numbers that are commonly used in English. Many others held up what looked like 17 because they used Arabic numbers and the Arabic 6 looks like a 7. So these teachers had the numbers right, but as Amber looked around she started commenting that “some of you have the right answer of 16, but for those groups that have 17…” and I stopped her before the translation to say, “No, wait! Those are Arabic numbers Amber.” It only took her a second to recognize immediately what I meant.

Whew! Potential misunderstanding averted and yet the story is not quite over.

As I was talking about the incident to my interpreter Hallid today, explaining that the numbers I grew up calling Arabic sure don’t look Arabic at all, he told me that they also call the numbers we commonly use Arabic numbers and they call their numbers “Indian numbers.”


There is either a fascinating numeric-linguistic explanation for this or he is just pulling my leg. I’m not ruling either one out yet.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

PD 101

Unmistakably, if you read on, I am a little rusty at both my professional development planning as well as my cultural competency.

This morning Amber and I launched into our first day of professional development with teachers from the Yemeni Teachers Syndicate and I completely forgot to do the most basic PD opening of all time: announcing where to find the bathrooms, where to get coffee, and … where to take your prayer break.

Now I may get sanctioned by the National Staff Development Association, lose a draft pick, maybe have to pay a fine, for the omission of the bathroom location because being out of practice is no excuse I am sure, but the prayer break was complete rookie cultural literacy. Especially for someone who went to sleep the night before so pleased that she had set up a TIME, from 12:20 to 12:40, in the agenda for a prayer break.

So there we are at about 12:16 and the call goes off. I can clearly hear it inside the Hotel Sana’a. I am scribing for Amber and the translator is speaking for her, so there is a lot going on in the room when I try to get her attention. When I get it, I ask both she and the interpreter simultaneously “Should we just quit here until the break is over?” Something gets lost in the request momentarily and the interpreter tells us just to finish, at which point Amber and I both ask “Are you sure?” and his eyes get very large as he says “No, no, no, no, no let’s break here and then we will come back.”

Whew. I think we are back on the right track when I notice that everyone is getting up to leave but they are looking around.


Of course men and women don’t pray together and we didn’t designate where each group should go during this break. Someone more with-it than me settles the matter quickly in Arabic and just like that we are in an empty room and I’m feeling somewhere just south of Rookie of the Year.

What teachers talk about

Here is a summer quiz just to keep you sharp. Read the following list and determine if it was generated by:

A. St. Paul teachers, or
B. Yemeni teachers

When teachers have time to talk to one another, what do they talk about wanting to improve about teaching?
Crowded classrooms
Too much noise in the classroom
Discouraging environment inside and out
No ventilation, no lighting
Village schools have many different grade levels in the same room
Students drop out
Deficient curriculum
Lack of audio-visual aides
Weakness of some teacher’s performance
School buildings not suitable for teaching
Girls dropping out
Lack of modern technology
Syllabus much more rigorous than student ability
Students getting absentminded (day dreaming) in the afternoon
Lack of classroom space in villages so students study under trees
Students not interested in studies
Principals sometimes act like dictators with teachers
The new syllabus is not always suitable for teaching techniques needed in training
Scientific mistakes in books
Financial problems
Problems between teachers and principals and sometimes parents
Some teachers lack effective methods to hold student attention
Teacher training programs are inadequate
Social workers in some schools who don’t do anything
Families do not stress the importance of school
No specialization in some subjects
Some basic subjects in 1st-6th grade are too difficult
Lack of communication between school and family
The phenomenon of cheating
Some teachers interested in subject matter but don’t take responsibility to teach behavior
Syllabus not provided at the beginning of the school year
Teachers don’t do any professional development
Some colleagues spend a lot of time talking about negative things with nothing positive to say ever
Lack of access to teacher manuals—not given to the teacher
Some teachers are assigned to teach subjects that are not their specialty
School management does not cooperate with teachers; they interfere with a teacher’s work with students
Students fail, an influential person comes to school and the student is suddenly passing
School management deals with teachers according to political affiliation

If you picked “B. Yemeni teachers” you were right! You pass with honors if you used the testing strategies of context clues (the word “village”) and prior knowledge (knowing I am in Yemen) to choose the answer without even reading the passage carefully.

Of course, as I discussed with leaders and members of the Yemeni Teachers Syndicate today, it is easy to complain about our jobs. However, it is courageous and incumbent upon the richness of our union history to do something about it. That is exactly what each one of us can do as the voice of our union in our buildings, in our departments or grade levels, and in our district. We may not have every problem on this list, but each one of us can find one that we do recognize AND that we can collectively work to improve, whether it is 3 of us speaking up at a faculty meeting or 3000 of us standing up for each other.

Each act we carry out that improves our profession and the learning experience of our students makes us powerful.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Shoe Horn Professional Development

When the AFT trainers came out this past winter to ascertain what would be beneficial to the Yemeni teachers, a 7 day training was put together. As usual, money—not the needs of teachers—became a central issue and so we have that 7 day training pared down to 5 days. As we were going over the agenda with an official from the Ministry of Education who works with the Yemeni Teachers Syndicate he asked, “Isn’t this a lot of material to teach them in 5 days?” and so the realities of professional development cannot be escaped no matter where we are.

As someone who guides the budget for our union, I understand and have a healthy respect for budgeting, saving money, and offering the best quality for the value in all areas. However, we must very, very soon draw a line in the sand for low budget professional development with high stakes expectations.

If there are clear expectations for what teachers should know in order to start a year, or start the profession for that matter, in order to meet the needs of our students in the 21st century, why are we continually forced to cram them into 19th and 20th century school years and school days? Why are there corners cut in professional development but the same mile-long expectations and accountability?

Let’s leave the expectations and accountability alone for now, but let’s stop shoe-horning in an hour of mining test data here, and 54 minutes of professional conversations there. Our union needs to lead the conversation around a professional day and year that allows us to do our jobs and meet the needs of our students, allows us to talk to each other regularly and not on the way to the bathroom or just before basketball practice, allows us to build relationships with students in meaningful ways (another day I will talk about the lunacy of “fresh-starting” teachers in our most vulnerable schools), and allows us at the end of the day to feel that we had the professional voice to shape the day and year we have because we are the professionals who understand how to meet the needs of our students.

Some people might call that ideal; I want to call that reality. In St. Paul, and hopefully someday here in Yemen, too.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Food Market

Walking through the food market today the heady trance brought on by the sweet-tangy smells and glorious colors of abundant mounds of spices was broken by a stark conversation on the price of food in Yemen. Although the conversation was locally centered, the global undertones were hard to miss. When I was here in May 2007 it was impossible to walk down the narrow, tarp-covered spice aisles without bumping someone and replying “hello” in response to a chorus of “Welcome!” from half a dozen friendly Yemenis.

The slender aisles are quieter this time. We saw no one scooping up grain or beans in our time waiting out the rain. No one stopped to buy coffee, garlic, or fenugreek to make the magnificent Yemeni dish of ‘salta.’ We were told by our guide that the price of food in Yemen has gone up drastically, yet of course the population of Yemen has not precipitously fallen commensurately. Which leaves a person to ask: How are Yemenis getting their food? Where are they getting it? What are they doing without it? What are these merchants in the market doing in response to decreased sales? What do they forgo buying as a result of depressed sales? How does that further impact the economy? Who isn’t eating and what is the long-term implication of a country skipping meals that currently faces a staggering 40% unemployment rate, 20 million people with access to 90 million personal weapons, where 75% of the population is under 25 years old and has a 50% illiteracy rate?

Dusting off the blog as I'm back in Yemen

Amber Prentice, SPFT member and AFT ELL Cadre member, and I are in Yemen to teach groups of teachers from both the official teacher’s union and the Yemeni Teachers Syndicate. We spent a lot of time during our flight from Frankfurt to Sana’a reshaping our lessons on classroom management, time on task, and teacher praise and still I am filled with questions about how it will go.

I would have liked time to observe more classrooms and talk to more teachers when I was here last to truly get an idea of where these teachers are starting and, therefore, what they need. Most of what we plan on teaching should be universally applicable but still I have questions. What sort of behavior do they see? What are typical methods of controlling behaviors now? What sort of barriers do students have to understanding lessons? How disparate are the abilities in a classroom of 80 students? How effective is any classroom management strategy in a classroom built for 30 holding 80+ students? I suppose I could just ask a choir, science, or physical education teacher in St. Paul some days.

At its most basic, the goal of these teacher unions is parallel to ours: Make the union the place you go to become professionally supported and enriched. Make the union the place you go to hold conversations that improve your individual classroom work as well as advance our profession. Ultimately, if that is what we have in common, then those questions above can be tackled during our training. I’m looking forward to learning the answers and sharing our conversations

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Vetoed again

Our locally-endorsed, Education Minnesota-sponsored Statewide Health Insurance for School Employees bill was vetoed again. The excuses were even weaker this year than the last.

Consider that Education Minnesota took last year's veto letter and spent the entire year addressing his concerns line by line. Several discussions with the Governor's office took place. Phone calls and conversations with the Commerce Department were made. The plan was redesigned to match the solutions to the Governor's concerns in every instance.

Our state union Education Minnesota negotiated in good faith.

Our state union worked repeatedly throughout the session to try to schedule conversations with the Governor and his staff to check in on our progress to address his concerns.

And he has the nerve to say "the structure of the pool was changed late in the session" as if that is our fault?!

Our own St. Paul School District was quoted in a newspaper as stating the cost of our health insurance in St. Paul increased by $21 million in a 4 year time span. An increase. That's not even the budget. That's just the increase.

And he has the nerve to say "It does not make sense for the state to mandate that school districts obtain health insurance from a health insurance pool if participating school districts do not achieve significant savings," as if significant savings hasn't been the point of this bill since its inception?!

He boasted at the beginning of the session that he was going to be happy to get a lot of use out of his "taxpayer protection pen" but Tim Pawlenty is clearly wrong here.

Larger pools save money. They mitigate the effects of unforeseen catastrophic care. They spread the risk. They do everything a good insurance pool should do.

Tim Pawlenty has left taxpayers in every school district extremely vulnerable with this veto.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Rule of 92?! MUCH better than nothing

I have some exciting news to share with you, and an opportunity for action (of course!). Late last night the pension bill, which previously had absolutely no benefit improvement for active teachers, was amended by Paul Thissen to include a very healthy compromise. While his amendment is not the “true” Rule of 90, it is a significant improvement and deserves to move forward.

Representative Thissen’s amendment includes a few very important things:
1. It lowers the normal retirement age from 66 to 65
2. Provides a new 2.0 multiplier (improved from 1.7)
3. Permits retirement with no penalty if a teacher has 30 years of service and is 62 years old

I need you to encourage members of the House to pass this amended pension bill (House File 3082 including amendment 920) and send it to the conference committee. Please contact your House member. Tell them how excited you are that we have the opportunity to see a real pension benefit for active teachers. I have included the addresses and phone numbers of St. Paul House members as a start.

DO NOT USE YOUR SCHOOL EMAIL ACCOUNT OR YOUR SCHOOL PHONE TO CONTACT THEM. PLEASE USE YOUR PERSONAL EMAIL AND A PERSONAL PHONE. (Sorry if it seems like I yelled that part, it’s just really, really important. Thanks.)

House members can be reached by email with the following formula:

Happy 30th Anniversary!

Thirty years ago this week the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers began officially representing educational assistants. May 12, 1978 was the date of the first contract recognized for educational assistants in St. Paul Public Schools.

Happy 30th Anniversary!

In that time the role of an educational assistant has evolved from a nebulous, newly classified assistant to a true education support professional.

Educational assistants often work alongside teachers aiding our most vulnerable students: Our students in crisis, our students with disabilities, our students experiencing rage or profound grief. Our educational assistants are critical links into communities that otherwise might experience isolation because language would be a barrier. Educational assistants are a building's first responders: standing as sentinels at the door, watching over the cafeteria, or patrolling the hallways for safety. So much of our school communities run smoothly because of the myriad of jobs held by our educational assistants.

Thank you for your work and dedication to education in St. Paul Public Schools.

Let's celebrate together!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Thank a school nurse

Happy School Nurse Appreciation Day!

School nurses are full partners in the education of our students. When I think of a the difference that having a school nurse in the building means to my students, I find myself simultaneously grateful for their work and furious at how we have to squeeze a budget to within an inch of its life to afford that access.

Today I want to make sure that everyone appreciates the work they do, including:

  • Oftentimes being the primary care provider for all the medical issues for many of our students and their families.
  • Working as a team with social workers and counselors to identify the needs of students. They then can be taken care of and stay in my classroom where I can meet the academic needs they have.
  • Educating students to meet their own, often chronic, medical needs so students leave class less often so I can meet the academic needs they have.
Every child needs a school nurse.

Every school nurse needs to be appreciated.

Thank you for your work, nurses. I literally couldn't do it without you.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Time to turn up the heat on the Legislature

Local presidents across Minnesota received a note from Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher earlier tonight requesting urgent action before the end of this legislative session.

There are many, many legislators who self-identify as education-friendly. In screenings and meetings they listen to our priorities.

However, we need them to actually act on our priorities.

School funding increase. There is not a building or program in St. Paul Public Schools that does not intimately understand our desperate funding situation. We have all sat through enough extremely painful conversations, site counsel meetings, or budget surveys in the last 8 years, and especially 8 weeks, to know that we are sick and tired of hoping students don't get sick 3 days a week because we can only afford a nurse 2 days a week. Hoping students don't want to check out books or teachers don't need support with information literacy instruction because we can't afford a licensed librarian. Hoping our students can afford their own extracurricular activities because we can neither pay for the licensed physical education teacher nor the after school programs for our students.

We need a school funding increase. Call your legislator and tell them we need a school funding increase. Tell them how many teachers and EAs you cut from your building, too. Tell them how those professionals served your students.

Go to and click under "Take Action."

Statewide health insurance pool for school employees. Speaking of being sick and tired, I am at email 400 and counting on your response to my health insurance and wellness questions. We must do something to contain the rising cost of our health insurance. It is clear to me that you want access to high quality health insurance. It is also abundantly clear that the cost of that health care is crippling your already modest budgets. Many of you opened up to share that you are no longer one health disaster away from big financial trouble, you are already there. Large pools of people buying health insurance together spreads the risk. It helps contain the cost of health care. That's why huge Fortune 500 companies like 3M and General Mills and Wells Fargo do it.

We need the statewide health insurance pool for school employees. Call your legislator and tell them. Tell them how much your health insurance costs, too. Tell them that we want our health insurance pool to have the buying power that their health insurance pool has.

Go to and click under "Take Action."

Rule of 90. In 1989 the state legislature took away the Rule of 90 for anyone hired after 1989. (In the interest of full disclosure, this includes me.) Now that means that those of us hired after 1989 must work about 7 years longer to get the retirement benefit of someone who can retire under the Rule of 90. For example, my dad retired at age 59 under the Rule of 90. I will work until I am at least 66 for the same retirement benefit. This needs to be fixed. I am happy to talk to anyone who does not understand that active members like me take this issue very, very seriously, and it is not just because my 8th graders already thought I was old when I started teaching at 23 so who knows what they will think of me at 66.

We need the Rule of 90. Call your legislator and tell them that we all need the Rule of 90 and there is no time like the present to fix it.

Go to and click under "Take Action."

When you are finished, cap it off with a quick call to the Governor telling him that these bills are on their way to him and that you would be very grateful if he would sign them. Then drop me a line telling me how easy it was.

Go to and click under "Take Action."

Inspiring perspective

We are part of a worldwide community working to leave the world better than the way we found it through education. Being a teacher in a free and democratic public education system puts you in solidarity with teachers around the world who have the same goals you have. Please know that the work you do is absolutely vital to the well-being of our local community and our global community.

As you got ready for work today wondering how you were going to help that student who lost a loved one, know that there are teachers in Iraq getting up today wondering the same thing. You would be inspired by how determined they are to breathe life into their educational system and you need to know that our work on behalf of public education inspires them, too.

As you brainstorm with the school social worker how to get extra uniforms for your students, know that teachers in Indonesia are doing the same thing. Here uniforms are a part of school choice. In Indonesia, no uniform means that a girl has no choice for any school. You need to know that our work on behalf of all students inspires them.

You steel your nerves, gather your courage, and speak from the heart of your expertise at a meeting, fully expecting the brunt of retaliation that may be coming. Know that there are teachers in detention in China for doing the same thing who are inspired by our organizing work.

You may decide at the end of the day to stand up for public education, stand up for your students, to stand up for your colleagues as your way of standing up for a free and democratic public education despite some vague threat of intimidation. Know that teachers in Zimbabwe stood up with you in the name of democracy as they acted as election poll watchers across their country and they are inspired by our activism.

Your work and the work of teachers across the world must continue for our future to have the promise it is supposed to have. We have much work to do to make that happen. Please continue to stand together with me as a member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers to do it.

Thank you!

Monday, May 5, 2008

True Teacher Appreciation

Teacher appreciation day is celebrated at roughly the same time of year in South Korea as it is here. When I taught in Seoul in 1997-98 I experienced the most lavish teacher appreciation day ever. By the end of the day I had more candy, make-up, lovely hankies, homemade jewelry and pillows than I knew what to do with. Despite my luggage restrictions however, at the end of my teaching experience there everything I couldn't eat made it home with me.

I found myself wondering if Teacher Appreciation Day could ever be that way in the United States, and if it could, would I want it to be?

Having had the opportunity to attend a few recognition and retirement dinners, I have heard 2 things over and over from retiring teachers. First, that those notes and mementos we get from students are often the only things we pack up and take home at the end of our careers, and second that the best appreciation gift we could get would be respect for what it takes to dedicate your life to teaching.

Over the years it is obvious that there are students we connect with, students who found us valuable. The notes they grace us with make it obvious that our students don't necessarily care when Teacher Appreciation Day falls on the calendar. In fact, it is often the extemporaneous, impetuous thank you that brings us to tears.

I am determined to see true teacher appreciation recognized someday in policy. It seems I can come up with a laundry list of how NOT to feel appreciated: PLCs prescribed to the minute, administrators who announce to a specific teacher at a staff meeting "You do know the voluntary transfer pool is open, don't you?", a promising statewide insurance pool idea stuck in neutral at the state capitol, jaw-dropping-eye-popping-hip-hopping-technology expectations that aren't paid for, and more mandates for license renewal yet more back doors into the profession.

I am thankful for that drawer full of notes, the homemade jewelry, and such. Those messages, especially, can do wonders at the end of a day filled with standardized tests, stolen computers, and stink-eyes. But it is time for a more vocal and permanent message that will endure in this profession long after we have taken our notes home with us and our profession is inherited by the next wave of bright and brave souls.

It is time for that message of respect.