Sunday, April 28, 2013

Wow! Thank You, WEA-RA Delegates

Wow! What a heady and humbling experience running for WEA president has been. Considering that I entered the race late, spent very little money, and ran as an insurgent, my showing was surprising to me. Thank you to all 243 delegates who chose to vote for me. I am very, very appreciative of the many of you who took time to acknowledge my effort. Some of you have asked for a copy of my remarks, which appear below. The WEA-RA does not video remarks from candidates, but I'll post a delegate's video (once I figure it out) of my speech for those who might be interested.

First election results in the WEA presidential contest:

Kim Mead, President of Everett Education Association
530 votes/49.17%

Mike Ragan, Vice President of the WEA
299 votes/27.7%

Peter Szalai, President of Oak Harbor Education Association
243 votes/22.54%

Run-off election results:

Kim Mead: 624 votes/61.9%
Mike Ragan: 377 votes/37.4%

Congratulations to Kim Mead on her victory who becomes the new WEA President around the time of the NEA-RA this July.

One of my favorite scenes in a movie about teaching is in Dead Poets Society where teacher John Keating tells his students to read an essay called “Understanding Poetry” by a J. Evans Pritchard. Pritchard defines poetry like this: “If the poem's score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.” 

Here’s John Keating’s response: “Excrement. That's what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We're not laying pipe, we're talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? I like Byron, I give him a 42, but I can't dance to it.” 

Good teaching is more like good poetry than good math.

The WEA made fully funding and fully implementing the new teacher evaluation system as intended by the legislature one of its top legislative priorities this year. WEA committed vast resources and our reputation to supporting the most emblematic symbol of the education reform movement. Our leadership made a political calculation that traded our core defense of the teaching profession for a seat at the table, and so we helped write the 2010 and 2012 legislation, and now are creating the contractual language, procedures and training to make it work. Without WEA there would be no new evaluation system. 

There’s a time for compromise and there’s a time for conviction. And our leaders have confused the two. Instead of compromising, our leaders should have cried “’Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”

We--the preeminent organization solely dedicated to public education—have endorsed the belief that old, bad union-protected teachers prevent children from learning, that teachers require improvement, and that ed reform is the fountainhead of solutions. We have given aid and comfort to those who wish us harm. We’ve saddled hundreds of school districts and thousands of teachers with the unnecessary, expensive, and exhausting yoke of a new evaluation system that will not change the reality that most teachers are doing a satisfactory job, that most students have opportunities for success, and that obstacles to failure are beyond the control of educators.

Protecting the teaching profession is a core value of the WEA. It should never be negotiable. You cannot reduce teaching to a number. Period. 

If the WEA is not behind us, who is? If our leaders don’t know when to draw a line in the sand, who will? 

Pedagogy and practice are not the problem. Poverty and parenting are. In the past twenty years in our obsession with teacher performance, we have spent practically no time, money, or energy focusing on deep-rooted and uncomfortable factors that actually do affect achievement: a declining work ethic, evolving concepts of individual risk-taking and independence, an unjust economic system, over-prescription of drugs and over-labeling of behaviors that should not be drugged or labeled, casual attendance, avoidance of personal responsibility, over-parenting, under-parenting, judicial decisions, legislative meddling, and inequitable funding.

Ed reform is a phenomenally misguided and wasteful scheme by politicians, philanthropists, pundits and business leaders to impose a corporate model on public education, believing that educating human beings is a mass production enterprise akin to stamping sprockets on an assembly line. Ed reform has diverted money away from public schools to charter schools, narrowed the curriculum, devalued the fine arts, marginalized social studies and P.E., fomented an obsession with testing, siphoned funds from curriculum and student support to professional development, scapegoated teachers, and absolved students and parents of their responsibilities.

This is the centennial of Rosa Parks’ birth. Many of us know the story of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man, an action that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott which is a milestone in the civil rights movement. Later it was erroneously reported that Rosa Parks simply was too tired to stand up. But that’s not what happened. As she said, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

It wasn’t a moment to compromise, to negotiate how many rows forward she would be permitted to sit on the bus, or under what circumstances fatigue might trump racism. Well, this is our Rosa Parks moment, our moment to say enough, we’re tired of letting others define good teaching and good learning and good schools, when we finally say, we’re tired of giving in.

Thank goodness that our colleagues at Garfield in Seattle took a stand against the injustice of an over-reliance on testing. 

They understand that not everything that counts can be counted. Can you imagine what mighty power we could harness in effective service of educating and believing in the whole child—not just the part that can be measured and reduced to endless vats of data--if this one moment the WEA leadership actually planned proactively?

I’m Peter Szalai, I’m an 8th grade teacher and spend most of my time with the adolescent versions of the Seven Dwarves: you know them . . . Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, Sleepy, Smelly, Moody, and, of course, Drama.

I’ve been a classroom teacher for 30 years—and I use the label “teacher” not as an honorific--I come from full time teaching not from full time release, not from union offices but from the front lines where we have to implement every next new thing. I'm the insurgent candidate. I am neither beholden to nor enamored by the WEA bureaucracy. I owe no one anything. My focus is totally on what's best for our profession and our members with an authenticity burnished through doing the incredibly difficult job of teaching every single hour of every single work day—a hard job made harder by constantly being poked, pushed, prodded, probed by those who neither teach nor understand teaching—do this, don’t do that, do more of this, do less of that, do this and that. 

I will have no problem whatsoever speaking truth to power, to say unmistakably, “The Emperor has no clothes.” I won’t dress up bad policies with expediency. I won’t raid our closet to modulate and legitimize those efforts which are not in the best interests of public education. 

I also will stop WEA from lurching reactively, from being stuck in perpetual “the sky is falling” mode—usually singling out and caricaturizing Republicans as two-dimensional figures unable to participate humanly in the public education debate. We should stop alienating many of our members, stop being seen statewide as a toady to the Democrat Party, and stop unwisely marginalizing our influence with those with whom we disagree.

Our rally tomorrow is headlined solely by Democrats. Now, in the words of Will Rogers, personally “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat." And I’ve patiently explained to my Republican and unaffiliated members in Oak Harbor that WEA endorsements are based on candidate positions on our issues. But let’s review:

No Child Left Behind was co-sponsored by a Democrat. Our two new evaluation laws were passed by a Democrat legislature and signed into law by a Democrat governor. Race to the Top and STEM competitive grants, and the appointment of Arne Duncan as Education Secretary are the responsibility of a Democrat President.

In my school district, all three Republican legislators supported doubling our levy rate. On Whidbey Island, we usually have Republican legislators and we engage with them in mutually respectful ways. 

The WEA needs to be a non-partisan, professional organization. We ought to hear from all decision-makers respectfully. When we disagree or favor another approach, we should act accordingly.

And, lastly, I believe we need to get our financial house in order by making economies, reprioritzing our expenditures, and remembering who pays the bills. A beginning teacher with no TRI earns about $33,000. A beginning paraeducator in my district makes $13.31 an hour. And the WEA staff they support are compensated very handsomely, as is the WEA president who is paid more than 32 states pay their governors. My local uniserv, one of five statewide nearing bankruptcy, is raising dues 48% this year and another 15% next year. I support the work of the Sustainability Committee which seeks to reduce the size of the WEA Board of Directors, eliminate uniserv councils, and invest in more local leadership training and development. 

We need to live within our means. 

Everyone has a favorite teacher. Mine is Dr. Heniford, just this month celebrating his 85th birthday. He was my 10th grade English teacher who taught me how to write and speak and value education. When I once asked him why he wore a tie to school every day when many of the other teachers were more casual, he said “To honor my profession.” There’s a word we don’t hear often in relation to teaching and teachers: honor. I don’t remember a single assessment or a learning target written on the board or his fidelity to his department’s pacing guide or his score on 37 sub dimensions of an instructional framework. But I remember him. Good teaching is foremost about relationships.

There are two establishment candidates in this contest—you like how things are going, choose one of them—they’ll keep the same direction, the same policies. I call them the Titanic candidates--their experience in WEA’s bureaucracy looms large and impressive.

But if you have had enough, if you’re ready for a different approach, then for a change you have a choice.

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