Education, Three Generations, In this Moment
By Rich Feldman
What follows is an exchange of ideas between three generations of my family, at the intersection of public education, labor unions, and interpretations of social justice in a time of unprecedented strife.
Coequal with the strife is the corruption and runaway wealth of fewer than one percent of our population, racist capitalism with deep roots in the endemic and flawed ideology of white supremacy. Amid daily protests that are largely youth driven, the Black Lives Matter movement demands big, bold institutional change. In more subtle and insidious ways, institutions that have not served people of color equitably are being internally corrupted and reinvented by those who seek to preserve our white supremacist ways. We cannot run or hide any more. Institutional change is coming, and we must leverage the will and wrest back the power to ensure that change is just, decent, humanizing and inclusive in all of our social institutions, including and especially our system of education.
Beginning with my daughter Emma, a teacher for seven years in a Boston elementary school, who shared these heartfelt thoughts on Facebook, titling them “Re-Imagining Safety”:
Can we please expand our notions of safety as we talk about “going back?”
I don’t want to go back to our schools. They have failed — kids, educators, families, communities for generations (yes, even pre-covid). SCHOOLS WERE NOT SAFE BEFORE THE PANDEMIC. Do you remember Columbine, Metal Detectors, Police in schools, water safety?
Please stop perpetuating this false dichotomy. When we don’t broaden our notions of safety — we are letting Trump and DeVos set the agenda about what reopening looks like.
What would you (you: educators, families, kids, community members) add as we say: What are the 6 ADDITIONAL things we MUST ensure to go back to school safely?
Some ideas I have heard include (but aren’t limited to):
- Police out of our school
- place-based curriculum that honors and learns from the brilliance of the communities where our students live,
- Outdoor classrooms that demonstrate we must learn not just from the 4-walls of our “classrooms”
- Anti-racist, Anti-Sexist, Anti-Ableist curriculum and pedagogy (yes, no more color sticks for behavior management),
- Moratorium on firing any teachers of color from a system that currently has no clue on educating black children, or children of color.
- Inclusive classrooms so ALL children learn with the kids from their communities (not just those disabled kids labeled “inclusion ready”),
- Joyful classrooms where teachers have time to grow as educators and have time to breathe throughout the school day,
- Recess spaces that allow kids to play, solve conflicts, and grow, lunch spaces with food that is found, cooked, and prepared with the community at the center…
- Oh yeah, and lots of love, imagination, and healing.
Emma is also active in the Boston Teachers Union. She is the grand-daughter of my mother, Pearl Feldman, who went on strike in 1968 with the United Federation of Teachers for all the wrong reasons. My mother rejected the commitment and aspirations of black parents putting forward the demand for community control of schools in the Ocean Hill – Brownsville neighborhood of NYC. My mother was protecting her seniority, her livelihood, our family opportunities and her dreams at the expense of “the other.” Her choices supported my opportunity to go to college but what about the rest of the students and children?
As teacher unions, educators, parents and students continue to debate the challenges of “returning to school,” I cannot get my mother and Emma’s grandmother out of mind. Nor can I get the vision, the understanding, or the commitment of my daughter, to her students first, and to her precious work with them. With thanks to Emma’s mother (her other biggest fan and a teacher) my wife, friend, comrade of 40 years, these deep-seated beliefs that Emma holds dear grow from her heart, and are the foundation of a deeper understanding and unveiled acknowledgement of the failures of education in our country. Emma was raised in a family of committed activists and surrounded by elders like Vincent Harding, James and Grace Lee Boggs and so many others. Janice is one of the greatest listeners on this planet and Janice always listened to Emma’s frustrations, dreams and fears. This is important for all children but especially important for Emma because she is also a younger sister of Micah who was born with an intellectual disability. Micah has been a self-advocate and pioneer in the inclusive education movement. Check out the film “Intelligent lives” and Janice’s book What Matters: Reflections on Disability, Community and Love. Emma and Micah lived, learned with dreams, agony and ecstasy about the importance of inclusive education and that “a community that excludes even one of its members is no community at all,” (Dan Wilkins).
Education and Unions: at a Crossroad
The growth of teachers’ unions gave me opportunities and also denied others their opportunity. Today can be different. We do not want to repeat our history, we want to change our story.
In 1967, I was able to go to “out of town” college because my mother was in the United Federation of Teachers in NYC. I moved from Brooklyn, NY to Ann Arbor, Michigan in August of 1967. Ann Arbor is 40 miles from Detroit. August 1967 was one month after the Detroit & Newark Rebellions.
The opportunity to go to University of Michigan changed my life and my aspirations. I joined the anti-war movement, became active with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), attended the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, traveled to the 1969 United Front Against Fascism organized by the Black Panther Party and even drove to Woodstock. These choices informed and shaped my life. They continue to inform my thinking, values and vision for activism, unions, and community transformation.
I have been privileged by my opportunities and by my more than 50 years of radical, revolutionary relationships, connections, study, challenges and dreams.
After leaving Ann Arbor, I worked the assembly line for 20 years at the Ford Truck Plant, was an elected union official for about a decade and worked for the international staff of the UAW before retiring in 2015.
I also worked with James and Grace Lee Boggs for more than 40 years. During the Community Control Movement and in response to Brown versus Board of Education, Grace Lee Boggs challenged activists to re-define the purpose of education. She wrote Education to Govern and later she and Jimmy Boggs wrote and spoke extensively about the need for a paradigm shift in education.
With all my good intentions, my attempts at transforming my union, challenging and struggling with the union to listen and learn from the communities and the evolving community issues in our country, primarily the need to confront racism among white workers, I know that more than 50% of white workers in the UAW voted for Donald Trump. The union essentially became a temporary insurance agent for an economic and seniority crisis. When our union “did the right thing” it had little to do with the membership and mostly to do with the “left leaning intellectual tradition of some staff and elected leadership.
While I have no regrets from my journey, I believe that the relevancy of unions in 2020 will only matter when they/we take on the needs and concerns of parents, community members, students and not just the unionized workforce.
The Freedom Movement, the Non-Violent Struggle, Black Power Movement of the 1960s and the Movement for Black Lives has captured the imagination and dreams of a generation assuming leadership in our organizing, our communities and in our unions. Today’s bold leadership has been informed and grown from the struggles of those in all the humanizing movements of the 20th century. From LGBTQ to the Disability Justice Movement, the anti-apartheid movement to the rights of the Palestinian people. From Standing Rock to the Global Climate Struggles of this century we now find ourselves confronted with a world-wide pandemic, which, in a dearth of national leadership, has cost us almost 200,000 human lives. Somehow, amid almost nightly protests, since the horrifying murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, there has not been attributable spread of the virus due to these large gatherings. Facial masks that have been mandated in some states and locales, have also become signage; many masks are printed with Black Lives Matter, #BLM, “I can’t breathe” and more are prominent still in marches and protests. These masks, that cover our mouths and noses, do prevent some spread of the coronavirus. Even so, COVID-19 has limited some immuno-compromised and older citizens from engaging in these examples of Democracy. Protestors do incur some additional risk during the pandemic.
Questions of Purpose, Courage, and Safety
To return to Emma’s original question – what does it mean to be safe now, in 2020? Schools have been closed since March, reopening is a scatter-shot attempt to try to get students back safely, which means a checkerboard of “solutions” that feel wholly unsatisfying, not scientifically informed and locally decided by school boards who are likely not public health experts. Moreover there are increased costs of cleaning and sanitizing classrooms, and more purchasing of technology for students in schools that are using hybrid models for safe return. As of this moment, there is no national plan for how our public schools should re-open. States and cities are working hard to get students back to school in the absence of good guidance. The national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have varying degrees of information about COVID-19 on their websites. Following suit, the local unions are involved in these “community” based decisions to varying degrees, probably based on the strength of their local leadership. Teachers are stressed and afraid; the pandemic and its relentless spread not only affects teachers and students, but extended families, too.
Returning to the mistakes made in 1968, by my mother and her national union president, Albert Shanker, of the AFT, where in New York City (NYC) they prioritized the demands of their membership over the concerns, needs and voices of the community. To be sure, we are in a unique time and space, but equally true is the fact that the system of education is broken and growing numbers of parents, teachers, students and educators know it. Emma’s questions and suggestions listed earlier are the result of knowing this, and asking bigger deeper questions, and taking some risk. Teachers have the opportunity to stand for something beyond “protecting”; to move from protecting themselves, sometimes with good intentions, to leading and becoming active players in creating the future.
It is not only Trump and Devos who are breaking the system. It has been totally bankrupt since No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, from Bush to Obama. It has been broken for decades and decades. Lip service reforms (i.e. we support social & environmental justice concerns) or solutions dedicated to failed concepts of success have not worked and will not work. If our children continue to experience failed Individualized Education Programs ( IEPs), attend underfunded schools with insufficient resources, face trauma daily because too often teachers, administrators and school systems have been concerned with their/our “professional-union lane” rather than building a new highway. There are, however, signs of hope. We can learn from the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) which made a commitment to create critical connections and relationships with community, students, educators AND parents to remind us that education must include art, music, counselors, nurses, health, safety, play time, outside time and concern for the dignity of each student.
Here is a credo for education and a challenge to our “usual union thinking.” It is time to strike for the common good and public good. I remember that teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico raised up the demand and initiated a strike stating that, “there will not be a new contract until every student had new shoes on the first day of school. “ In 2006, In These Times reported:
Since May 22, tens of thousands of teachers and administrative workers belonging to
Oaxaca’s Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers have been on strike,
camping out in the colonial town square, shutting off highways, blocking government
buildings and marking their territory–all of downtown Oaxaca–with political graffiti,
reading, “The movement has no leaders; it is from the grassroots!” The teachers’
demands include school uniforms and shoes for all students, more scholarships, and an
increased budget for school buildings and equipment.
Beyond safety and protectionism: What kind of courage and vision is required of each of us and our institutions?
These ideas and proposals have come from educators, teachers, principals and friends.
We face this moment of a continued out of control Pandemic because our national leadership fundamentally ignored reality, science and the lives of its citizens. This failed policy was intentional.
It has exposed the bankruptcy of this leadership and has uncovered the 400 year veil of racial capitalism, the decades and centuries of systemic racist policies, values and culture. When we look at the data of the percentage of black people and people of color who have died, there is not much argument to be made for a return to normal. We also have learned that nursing homes, group homes, homeless shelters, prisons and detention centers are not safe places; they are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of the virus.
There is no going back to “Normal” because Normal is the seeds and roots of the system that has failed and been totally broken down for decades and even centuries. The public school system and schools have failed and the time for reform is over. We now hear the words of Abolitionist Education. No reforming slavery, no reforming the school system, no return to normal.
We need to allow teachers to prioritize relationships with their students and families, thus minimizing the trauma of this difficult time. Our priority is to provide the love and support for authentic relationship building between teachers, staff, parents, and students.
- Creating curriculum and education to engage in “caring for each other and the earth as the focus of all school curriculum and activities.
- End the anxiety and trauma epidemic
- Significantly slow down the pace of schooling so that school communities, youth and adults and families. neighbors can heal & reflect together.
- Engage with the education community to discuss, deliberate and make decisions collectively into learning instead of focusing on content memorization/coverage which students forget after the course anyway. There is no data that show that standards and accountability strategies for “school improvement “ worked. It is time to come to terms with the fact that the system has been an utter failure and that its only function is to support the few who keep the many down.
As the AFT continues to announce its support for strikes to “protect” its membership, what will local leaders and teachers say or do?
- Can the AFT unleash a discussion for the public good, the common good and initiate policies that represent the change in schooling that is so necessary. Make these strikes a “common good” strike which would mean striking to protect the health of every child, families, teachers, staff, bus drivers, and the broader community?
- Can it strike and still engage in creative educational opportunities?
What do we dream is possible? How do we create new practices and unleash the creativity and imagination to support families, students and teachers in the birth of the new. What can education look like now? What is the difference between education and schooling?
Programs for practice: Unleash thinking and possibilities?
- Set up neighborhood community freedom schools. Create small pods in neighborhoods with teachers, support staff and parents. (Study history of Freedom Schools in the south and emerging freedom schools of today. Share examples of current freedom school initiatives across our country. Share resources and tools. Detroit Independent Freedom schools, Chicago Freedom Schools, Marian Wright Edelman Freedom Schools, among others.
- Listen to parents and students: Learn from Chicago Teachers union evolution and others.
- Engage in truth telling about 1968 teachers’ strike in NY against community control in Ocean Hills Brownsville. This was put forward in the Boston Teachers Union as they voted to get police out of schools. It united a challenge to the system outside and a challenge to the system inside our unions and all our organizations. Union power and racism or community power.
- Create respite time for parents of children with disabilities. They have been in their home with little supports for the past 5 months.
- What is the purpose of education? Success or sicksess? At a time when technology is creating a permanent underclass and outside class, we need to move beyond Jobs or Prison? What has been the lie of schooling? How does each student find their passion and create work that matters to their dignity, the community and the planet?
- Create outdoor classrooms and schools in every stadium not being used today in every city?
- Free computers for every student and free computer access for the entire country.
- Where will the money come from? Defund the pentagon and the police and pay for everything
- End all high stakes tests permanently and switch to tests using a purposeful sampling method as Deb Meier suggests.
- End all teacher evaluation where student testing data is used. Not statistically sound and only functions to burn out teachers and administrators.
- Provide teacher leaders and coaches with the time they need to do real instructional support instead.
- Increase teacher pay so that teachers do not have to work two jobs and can afford college. Increase parents’ income so they can send their kids to college as well.
- Increase teacher planning time, decrease teaching load.
- Increase art, music because this is where healing takes place,
Re-imagining safety and protection begins with the thinking and historical understanding emerging with Abolitionist thinking and the need to re-define the purpose of education in the 21st Century based upon the words: “A community that excludes even one of its members is no community at all” (Dan Wilkins).
Education and teacher unions are at a crossroads. A crossroads because of the breakdown in the system; the COVID-19 pandemic; the opportunities, challenges, and creativity raised by the Movement for Black Lives, as well as growing examples of ingenious educational practice by creative teachers, parents, staff and students.
There is a growing belief that our needs and our relationships matter more than our things and our stuff. If we listen closely, we hear the rising voice that our values are more important than our valuables and our needs are different from our wants. We often hear the words that we “are in this together” – well then, we need to create a vision that is for all of us, not just some of us. There is no protection of self – without protection of all.
Our choices today matter. Returning to “normal”, returning to old solutions and paradigms that have failed, or cheerleading within the institutions that continue to self-examine and reproduce our own histories will destine us to continued failure. Decisions made today will be the marker from which we move forward or continue to move backward. If we believe that education should provide the opportunity for every human being to reach his, her, their potential, then let strikes be for the Common Good.