THE BLOG

A More Confident System

04/16/2013 01:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2013

Last week, the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), representing tens of thousands of teachers, held a "Vote of No Confidence" on LAUSD Superintendent Deasy, in which just over half of UTLA teachers participated in a week-long up or down vote. With this, the union missed a critical opportunity to have a substantive conversation about what could transform Los Angeles schools, instead forcing teachers to simply choose sides.

Teachers wouldn't want their students to do this. It would reduce the important role of feedback and fail to consider the multiple measures of teaching -- lessons, student growth, and input from administrators, parents and students. Similarly, the district is the product of several variables, including collective policy changes, taxes, shrinking budgets, declining student enrollment and elected officials. Since leading a classroom -- like leading a district -- is a complex endeavor, students would be asked to give specific details about what is working and where teachers can improve. That is the sort of feedback teachers should be encouraged to provide their leadership, and these leaders should be asking teachers substantive questions, not holding popularity contests.

Educators 4 Excellence recently interviewed members for their input on this "Vote of No Confidence" process, the approach to engaging teachers in critical conversations about leadership, and how it could be improved. We heard three overarching themes:

• We need our union to be more transparent and informative
• We need our union to be solutions-oriented
• We need our union to fight for teachers and students

We need our union to be more transparent and informative.

Estevan Leyva, a 16-year teacher, summed up the problem: "I don't know why this [Vote of No Confidence] is happening. I haven't received any information on this at all... I think that we need to forget about the constant adversarial nature of labor vs. management and instead work together to address problems that directly affect students."

Sadly, several teachers such as Pearl Arredondo, a seven-year teacher, felt uninformed and surprised by the vote, questioning why the information came so late, with Pearl saying she and her peers felt "out of the loop."

Viviana Sosa, a former LAUSD student, teacher and union representative, and current E4E Outreach Director recently spoke to this lack of transparency and called for more direct engagement of teachers, saying, "Teachers should be a part of the conversation, and ought to be informed about decisions that affect our classrooms, schools, unions and district."

We need our union to be solutions-oriented.

Being a thoughtful critic includes noting flaws and proposing potential solutions. It is what teachers ask of themselves and their students, and what they ask of their union.

In that spirit, teachers asked for a more solutions-oriented union and provided ideas on how to get there. Many teachers suggested improving technology to get a more timely and accurate vote. Jerald Amaya, a seven-year teacher, felt this would alleviate problems around tracking votes and entire schools being discounted because of late arrivals. As it turned out, Jerald said, "voting at my school never happened."

Others called for more informal polling beforehand, including third year teacher Christopher Records who said, "A more balanced approach to discover the feelings of members would have been useful. We should have polled more members and gained [their] opinions to see if this is even necessary."

Providing more than a campaign of "no" is a matter of maturity and respect. Lisa Alva Wood, a 15-year teacher, said, "We aren't treating our membership or leadership with the dignity we would ask for ourselves. [We shouldn't] complain without offering information, alternatives or solutions."

We need our union to fight for us and our students.

E4E teachers are in a variety of LAUSD schools, but they all share one thing in common -- they love their students. For the sake of their students, teachers are often in classrooms without air conditioning, in jobs without a bathroom break, and in schools without paper. So any organization that represents teachers must also represent the reason teachers teach -- the students. "I want to be a part of a union that has an agenda for students, and a union that hears all points of view and values diverse opinions," explained Lindsey Patin, a first-year teacher.

Teachers put students first in every choice they make in their classrooms. Whether it's taking the time to give more detailed feedback, leading more extracurricular activities, or sitting on School Site Councils, teachers are doing what they do for their students. "I myself am one of those teachers who works countless hours with no pay, but even after 18 years of classroom teaching, I regularly seek to refine my craft..." explained Carlos Vizcarra, an 18-year teacher. Carlos continued, "[We cannot] perpetuate an 'us versus them' stand that does not seek to remedy problems within our educational system."

Once we engage teachers about the state of their classrooms and relationship with their union and district, it becomes clear that there are a few improvements that would facilitate a more productive dialogue:

  1. Improve transparency: Integrate technology in voting, and conduct polling on issues in a more transparent way.
  2. Ensure integrity: Genuinely elicit teacher perspectives on their schools, district and union instead of telling teachers how they should feel about issues or individuals.
  3. Refocus the discussion on students: Teachers are tired of debates that elevate the agendas of adults over children, and would like to vote on the best way their work can impact students.
  4. Encourage constructive debate: Teachers do not believe there is a simple solution for the challenges facing schools, and would like to see more professional discussion within their district and unions.

Yes, district and union leaders face an enormous challenge in transforming LAUSD, but polarizing rhetoric will only deepen divides and undermine trust. Leadership needs to hear candid and constructive feedback from teachers, parents, students and the community. Then, and only then, will we foster the level of trust and collaboration required to truly lift morale and performance in our public schools.