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 www.spft.org and www.pbgp.org 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 http://www.spps.org/System_Changes.html)

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.