Last Saturday, the National Education Association of Rhode Island put on an event called “Let Teachers Teach”, a day-long conference about the attack on public education and on teachers and about how we can and should respond. I was not able to go, as I did not have childcare available, but I would have gone if I could have. I want to ask a simple, open question: how was it? I would like to know. (I did, however, get a T-shirt, thanks to a certain videographer!)
It seems to me that precisely this sort of conference is what we need more of—in addition to pickets, rallies, protests, etc…which I have been haranguing my local and state union officials to do for some years now. Ah well. In any case, it seems to me that this is a good step—and improved by the solidarity extended to the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, who were also invited and had speakers on the program. This is a good sign—the RIFT has actually broken solidarity in the relatively recent past, namely over the questions of the attacks in Central Falls (RIFT) and East Providence (NEARI), and the approach to the Race to the Top Application. But rather than let this betrayal poison relations, NEARI has continued to support and work with RIFT locals. (As I write this, I think perhaps I ought to write another post at some point about RTTT…)
One other quick point to make about unions and getting members involved: I was not able to go because I did not have childcare, and crucially, nor was childcare provided on-site. When I asked my local president about this, her response was: “I have not had anyone else tell me that a “babysitter” is the reason that they are not going. Between you and me, I’m not sure that it would bring that many more people in.” Now keep in mind, I really like my local president, and unlike all the state-wide leaders of both unions, well, she’s a woman. But a single woman, so far as I know, without kids, in a union movement that long ago forgot to take care of its base. Talking to retired teachers who were militants in their day, childcare at events was a basic thing that they made every effort to organize. The other aspect of her response indicates a basic ignorance of parental life: teachers and union members who are parents, and who were not previously active union members and/or activists, have already written themselves out of activity. They didn’t say, “hey, I want to participate but I can’t get childcare” because they looked at the announcement, assumed that it didn’t mean them, and didn’t participate. This is not everyone, of course—but it is a significant chunk of teachers. And a significant section of teachers—because it’s the parents, and specifically the mothers, among the teachers who are being scapegoated for not being “superman”, for not spending every waking moment on their students. These are the people being squeezed the most by school “reform”, and they will be an important factor in rebuilding a fightback against the union-busting now in vogue.
It’s this kind of thinking that we need to move forward on building our unions and stopping the attacks—both the broad questioning of the overall “school reform agenda”, as well as a deep and genuine concern about how to involve people who have thus far been inactive or who may have material life circumstances that keep them out of activity as it’s been conceived up to now.
So to reiterate the question: folks who went to “Let Teachers Teach”: how was it?