President Emeritus, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers / AFT Vice-President for 25 years
“Push each other further out on the limb.”
It was genetics. My dad’s father came over from Sweden to Minnesota to become a railroad engineer. He was a part of the railroad workers union, the local grievance chair which, I think, back then was sort of pretty close to the leader of the union. He believed very strongly in it, partly because of having roots in Sweden where over 85% of the workers are still organized. I used to have a cousin who was head of the shoemakers union in Sweden.
So my dad grew up with that background. He worked as a teacher, too, but he had an eight hour job after school as a tool grinder in a machine shop. He had his lifetime pin in the machinist union. I knew his great zeal for social justice ran through everything he did. It caused me to be a union member before I got hired. I was a union member as a student teacher.
My mother was a union teacher in Minneapolis, also. In fact, she and I once were on strike at the same time. I had the thickest file in the school building because I was always a troublemaker and a spokesperson for teacher issues at the school site.
First thing I did when I got to be president was, with superintendent Richard Greene, we started the Labor Management Committee on professionalizing teaching. Our very first result was the mentor program that still exists today to help other teachers.
Much later, I was one of the founding mothers of the teacher union reform network back in 1995 when two union leaders, Adam Urbansky in the AFT, and a leader in the NEA sat down and thought of the need for a place where the most progressive union leaders in the country could get together and share experiences. I always say, “Push each other further out on the limb.” Maybe sometimes we say steal from one another, maybe share. But really to have in- depth quality discussion and debates in a safe place about the issues of the day and about how we can, as teacher union leaders, advance student learning and advance the profession of teaching and– the hardest part – consider what does a teachers union look like?
They were incredibly energizing and incredibly rewarding times, both practically and philosophically. We really believed so strongly that we were inventing a professional model. We were getting to the point where we thought we were really treating teachers well. We kept inventing and inventing and creating all these pieces of this professional model I’m talking about. It’s incredibly rewarding when you can lead a group of really wonderful professionals. This is my favorite definition of leadership, which comes from Joel Barker, the futurist: it’s to lead a group of people to a place further than they’d go on their own.
The great opportunity during those years was, for me, that the school board, during most of those years, understood that the AFT and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers had an agenda that was a professional agenda that would help teachers get better at what they do. It would make the results that they produced better, and so they understood that and wanted to be a part of it. They also understood that nobody else in education had that agenda, and nobody else could articulate it, nobody else networked around it. Because they understood we had the agenda, every time a new superintendent would come in, the school board would say, Okay, if you’re going to be superintendent in Minneapolis Public Schools, you have to be willing to cooperate with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. And that helped a lot.
What was happening in 1995 that even prompted you all to create this?
In 1995, we were a decade into creating a true profession, as was outlined by President Al Shanker in his 1985 press club speech, where he described all the pieces of a truly professional model for teaching. He had outlined an induction process, a mentoring process, a process of peer assistance and review, a process of teachers taking the leadership and professional development. We think he was the first one to outline national board certification, which, if we are going to ever become a true profession, we would model after the other professions so it would be like, for example, a nationally board certified surgeon.
He also, at that time, envisioned schools that would be started by teachers and a group of parents who would want to challenge or try out or practice a new way or an innovative way or a new strategy for teaching kids that they felt was going to be better. That idea, for the last twenty years, has been hijacked. Unfortunately, the initial hijacking took place in Minnesota, my state. It was called charter schools. A lot of people have said that Shanker’s idea was the basis for charter schools. It really wasn’t. Of course the rhetoric said, Well, the public schools, if they aren’t good enough or your kids aren’t making it, we have this alternative. So teachers viewed it as an escape mechanism for kids and families to get out of the public experience. We didn’t think that that was the purpose; the purpose is to build a better mousetrap, not to grab the cheese and escape the mousetrap.
It’s taken us until now to sort of recapture his original vision in what we call in my state “self-governed schools” or “teacher led schools.” We’re going back to his original idea to actually create what we think he had in his mind, which is a group of professionals who are trying out an actual innovation in how to educate kids, and not having external boards, not having CMO (a charter management organization), and not have all these external folks who don’t, for the most part, know anything about education, certainly don’t know the intricacies of and the research on teaching and learning. And to bring that back to the profession and have actual teachers be the ones to start those schools.
Part of why I may have gotten jaded or discouraged is that I helped start about five of what we called at the time “schools of the future.” Each one of those schools was a wonderfully innovative school. They all had different ways of educating kids. They had different, not just curriculums, but also strategies to educate kids. Well, it was all going wonderfully. And they were schools in which we treated teachers as professionals.
We provided business cards. We provided labels or nameplates for their desks. We put a phone on their desk, which at the time was a miracle; it was the hardest thing to do, to get a professional to have an actual outside line on their desk. We framed their degrees and their certificates and put them on the wall so the kids could come in and see what it means to be a teacher. Just like, my surgeon has all his degrees on the wall. The achievement gap closed and all those good things. I could name others of those schools that we helped develop and were a partner in. But they all disappeared.
The bureaucracy, you know, the big district bureaucracy couldn’t handle the differences. What everybody always hopes and says and dreams is that if you start something innovative in one school it will look really good and automatically spread to other places. In my experience all these years, it doesn’t happen that way. So gradually, they just kind of disappear in the district quicksand.
I think partly, it happens because there isn’t a powerful group or voice or a political entity within the system that protects them. So it’s just easier to let them start looking like everybody else again. We default to easy and we default to cheap. Or less expensive. You start out a school like that with teachers who are very enthusiastic. They’re pioneers. They’re gung ho. Those trailblazers, after a couple years, they said, “Well, okay. We started this, been here, done that. Now where’s the new horizon? Where’s the new mountain to climb? Where’s the next challenge…?”
That caused us to try to figure out how we can support innovation, how we can support creating a truly professional model for teaching. So now we come to our Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Local 59. The current president, Lynn Nordgren, had the idea that we would become a charter school authorizer in the state of Minnesota. So we applied and we have now been granted, as a legal entity, to be able to authorize charter schools that are either transferring or starting up in the state of Minnesota. We were called “The Guild. “
Part of the reason we’re called The Guild is that we have a vision of teaching that is like the old guild of the past. We’re hearkening back to a book called United Mind Workers by Koppich and Kerchner. It basically says that the original trades that came to this country developed into guilds where the tradespeople teach each other and they bring others into their trade. They are the ones that provide the training and the expertise for carpentry work or for the timber framers, and so on.
That guild model is what we’re trying to build. It’s the teaching profession, not the administrator profession, not the superintendent’s profession, not the school board profession, it’s the teaching profession. Therefore, teachers and their unions need to take hold of providing the teachers for schools, for districts, and guaranteeing that they’re trained well, that in year-long residencies like the other professions, they have continuous professional development like the other professions, and that they are skillfully assessed and supported. If they either can’t or won’t get better enough for the work that needs to be done, or their results aren’t good, then the profession is the one that says they have to leave it. But the problem is, teaching has always been called a profession, but it isn’t.
Then people said: Well why would we want professional teachers? We don’t want to pay teachers a professional salary. We don’t think teachers should have professional autonomy. We don’t think teachers should have power. Because, you know, then their unions have power. So all of a sudden this right wing swooped in and just absolutely pretty much stopped us in our tracks.
Did they swoop in or had they been creeping in?
[Laughs] That’s probably a good question, because creeping and swooping both probably happened, some of each. It was pretty subtle at first, but we had just gotten to the point where we were negotiating pretty good salaries under that alternative compensation plan, the Pro Pay plan. We were in a good place. Then it started. It started, I think maybe you’re right, rather quietly. So that’s what we look back on now as being probably the major frustration: that we were in so many places in the country, getting to the point where we thought we had created a professional model that would continue to attract the very best and brightest.
And yet, that’s kind of where it started — with the critics who said that teachers always came from the bottom third of their graduating class. They weren’t smart enough. We needed to change, and that’s Teach for America and all of this; we needed alternative licensure programs so that mid-career people can come in. Well, we already had that. It was a great program. But the progress that had been made across the country in many locals was not appreciated or recognized. We did not do a good job of publicizing where we were, what we had done, what we were creating.
I’ll go back to one of Shanker’s points that he always pointed out. If we allow all of these bad things to happen to teachers, and teachers become subject to standardized everything, teacher proof curriculum, programmed curriculum, and the principal is keeping them right there, he said the quality of teachers is going to go down. Because they’ll be nothing more than clerical.
If you discredit public educators, you discredit public education. It’s easier to privatize. Look at what’s happening in higher ed now, the online for profits are making a bundle, and finally in Congress now, they’re figuring out how much those guys are lying to these poor folks who are signing over their grants and aids and then a few months later, they’re out on the street and they’re the ones that have to pay it back. It’s criminal. There’s a lot of unscrupulous people out there. Plus there’s a lot of money in public education.
What would you define as the Goliath that educators are up against?
Well, it would probably be too simplistic to say that we’re up against the politics of education. But we’re up against the politics of education. Because we lost somewhere along the line the respect for public educators, now, and we have this tremendous infusion of money into the folks who have a wholly different agenda, a very large agenda of which teaching and the protections around teaching is only a means to an end.
There’s some fair evidence that the end is to discredit public schools, discredit public education, discredit public school teachers and get rid of public school teacher unions. For a long time, public teachers’ unions have been a target because so far, anyway, the public unions have been pretty successful in protecting the public schools, pretty successful in advocating for public schools as entities and as an option that needs to be maintained in this country for, obviously for working people and the children of working people and children of the middle class, and the very political move now is to attack the public institution by taking out its strongest advocate.
That’s what’s happening in Wisconsin and a lot of the other rust belt states. It’s happening with fearsome speed. It’s happening with a national agenda that’s coming out of ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council], which is funded of course by a lot of people that have agendas that we don’t agree with.
What do you see as your own slingshot?
Well, I do see some hope that we have awakened the sleeping giant of the labor movement, for one thing. And we have awakened other workers in this country to really start to understand what’s happening to their lives and their livelihoods, trying to retrain their voices to sing. How we help our Gen X and Millennial young people realize that maybe collectivism and collective action isn’t so bad, that maybe there’s a role for them to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Most union leaders are frustrated now, because pretty young people aren’t joiners. They don’t join churches. They don’t join unions. They don’t join clubs. They’re much more an individual.
So that’s the reason that I think a lot of us have worried about trying to get younger and younger people involved in this agenda.
I’m hoping I’m going to live to see teachers take hold and believe in themselves as professionals. Individually, they feel that they’re being professional. But collectively, they aren’t, we aren’t one, because we don’t decide who comes in. We don’t decide who leaves, we don’t decide who gets hired.
The one place that I do see incredibly enthusiastic, incredibly skilled, passionate young people is in the organizing ends of the labor movement now. I meet every other week in a group called The Labor Table. Around this table are young people from a lot of the organizations that are tangentially connected with AFL/ CIO. Also, the young organizers in the unions. It’s very exciting to see. If we could just get some of the young teachers to have enough breathing room and enough, you know, zeal and energy to kind of join that group, it would be great.
Because the most damaging thing that has happened to their spirits in the last decade has been the fear in the workplace. Everything is built on fear. It’s so damaging to their creativity, their work. And it flows down to the kids. It’s what this country has been built on in the last thirty years – it has been all built on fear and all built on divide, all built on taking away. It’s succeeding. I don’t want to leave this vale of tears with it in that condition. [Laughs]