07/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reflections and Thank Yous

Last night, at a meeting of my union's Delegate Assemby, I announced my plans to resign as president of the United Federation of Teachers, effective July 31st. Below are my remarks.

When I was elected president of our national union, the AFT, I said that I would hold both positions only temporarily -- long enough to ensure a smooth transition for the UFT. I've done that for a year now, even though each job is more than full time, deserving 24/7 attention. And while we have accomplished much this last year, the continuing challenges ahead require that both the local and the national unions have full-time presidents.

So, it is with very mixed emotions that I am announcing that this is my last delegate assembly as the President of the UFT, the resignation to be effective July 31st. That will enable the Executive Board to elect an interim president to serve until the next union election 10 months from now, and for that person to have time to start the school year off and running. I have no doubt, given our skilled leadership; dedicated staff; and the strength and character of our members, that the UFT's best days are still ahead.

I love this union, our members and the children we serve. Teaching and teachers have always been part of my DNA. As many of you know, my mom taught in Nyack for almost 30 years. When I was around 15, her union went on strike. It was a painful 6 weeks. Yes, I remember living those Taylor Law fines. But I also remember the solidarity of our labor colleagues, like the chicken dinners made for us at the firehouse, and the determination of her colleagues that I saw when I delivered the ruggelach my grandmother made each week for the teachers on the line.

Seeing that the work of school teachers, who choose to dedicate their lives to help the next generation, didn't garner sufficient economic or professional respect until they banded together and withheld their services -- that was transformative for me.

Since that time, I have been incredibly blessed. No one has a better job than I, working at the vortex between public education and the labor movement, the two most powerful engines for social and economic justice - one the great equalizer for young people and the other the great equalizer for working people.

And like my predecessors, Cogen, Shanker and Feldman we sought to make these engines realities in New York City. In my-speak it was trying to make every school a place where parents want to send their children and educators want to work.

And we have made a lot of progress towards these goals.

Take for example the battles to secure the professional latitude and the conditions we need to teach and our students need to learn.

Like the lawsuit we won over the condition of our school buildings that led to multi-billion-dollar back-to-back capital plans to restore crumbling roofs and replace out-dated technology.

Like our advocacy for school safety, which brings continuing improvements in crime rates and our recent leadership on swine flu.

Like winning the CFE lawsuit which secured hundreds of millions of dollars for our schools; and using our grievance process to be vigilant on things like adequate supplies and class sizes -- even though we have a way to go on lowering class size. Our public schools in the last three years have far more resources now than they did 30 years before hand -- and we must be ever vigilant to stop the clock from turning back.

We have taken giant steps to improve faltering schools and ensure that all students have well-prepared teachers. Starting with the Chancellor's District, and (after its demise) continuing with the preservation of some of those winning strategies in other turnaround schools. And the support for helping teachers - breaking through the isolation that so many teachers feel -- that our Teacher Centers, mentoring and Peer Intervention programs have provided.

And now, the new Green Dot/UFT contract, signed just yesterday, is a model for connecting teacher professionalism and student achievement -- a model that retains due process and makes advancements on class size and teacher voice.

We have not been defensive when so-called reformers wanted to see our profession change. Rather than resist change, we have led it. We confounded our critics with programs like Lead Teachers and school-wide bonuses and UFT charter schools.

But our standard for the worthiness of a proposed change was not whether it fit a rhetorical platitude, but whether it was good for kids and fair to teachers. That's why our bonus program is voluntary and decisions are made collaboratively by the staff members in each school along with the principal. And that's why we allow waivers from our contract, if the staff believes it will improve instruction. But when the Chancellor, rather than work with us to help teachers use data to guide instruction, tried at first the end run to link individual test scores to tenure, we stopped him in his tracks.

We have been quick to fight autocracy, supporting those courageous chapters and parents at JHS 8 to bring down their principal. And while we publicly expose abusive principals with our PINI (Principals in Need of Improvement) series in the newspaper, we also value and embrace those principals who work collaboratively with their staffs with our new award, the UFT School Partnership Award.

We have worked to create a strong relationship between our union and our communities. Schools are not the whole solution; it takes a village to raise children. Teachers can't do it all, and we can't do it alone. One of the things I am most proud of is that the UFT is now a welcome citizen of that communal village. From the 60,000 folks on the street last March in a labor/community/parent coalition to fight budget cuts, to the 80,000 youngsters and parents who call Dial-A-Teacher annually for homework help, to the hundreds of our best graduates we help send to college each year with an Albert Shanker scholarship, to our two East New York charter schools, to helping Harlem parents fight school closings, to joining parents just last week in Albany to support a greater voice for them in school governance -through that and much more we have tried to stop the demagoguery and destructiveness of pitting the community against its teachers, as was standard operating procedure in this city in the searing heat of Ocean-Hill Brownsville and the aftermath of those bitter strikes.

The last and most difficult frontier that we have tried to conquer is the economic disparities faced by our students and their families, and yes by our members, too. For our kids, we are fighting not just for better learning conditions but also for the health clinics, after school programs and other wrap-around services that will help them function their best in school. And for their families, we joined with coalitions of social service advocacy groups to keep the economic safety net intact.

And speaking of economic safety nets, I make no apologies for focusing so much energy over my tenure to trying to make our members' salaries and benefits more competitive. It is sad but true that in our society there is no dignity without economic dignity and no respect without economic respect.

I'll never forget when I started working for the UFT in 1984, starting teacher salaries were $14,000 and the highest salary after 15 years was $34,000.

Now our paras, who started as hourly employees under an old federal jobs program, have full benefits, the same job security as teachers, and a living wage. Our 28,000 day care providers have just secured an increase and hopefully we are on the cusp of their first contract. And our teachers, guidance counselors, secretaries and other school based educators, secured a 43 percent increase in the 6 years between 2002-2008, breaking the $100,000 mark, again with full benefits, including (after decades of fighting for it) an age 55 pension (which we have just preserved) and pensionability on all instructional after-school and coverage work. And by accomplishing all that, we sent a message that teaching is serious work deserving of serious respect!

Our children learn values from the adults in their lives. If this is not a society in which we pay our teachers and support staff decent wages, what messages are we sending to our children about what society values? Our children deserve the best. And they get the best with the people we -- all of us in this room -- have the honor of representing. And by assuring that they are professionals who can sustain careers and provide for their families, the United Federation of Teachers has given a gift to the people of the City of New York. We have given them our best minds and most dedicated hearts to help our City's children grow.

And speaking of our members:

Our members take money from their pockets to pay for classroom supplies; they work until the wee hours of the night planning lessons; they coach, they tutor, they spend their summers learning so they can be better teachers or working so they can send their own kids to college; they anguish over their students as if they were their own kids; they donate days to their colleagues who have exhausted their own sick leave. These are our members. They work every day for New Yorkers. And all they ask for are the tools and conditions they need to do their jobs, the professional latitude to teach and the economic security so they can provide for their families.

Now, as we near the end of our union's first half-century, we are starting to see the possibility in the U.S. of what no other country has ever accomplished: the provision of both universal access to education and universal attainment for our children. And, God willing, as recognition of the centrality of education to our freedom and prosperity grows, so will our members ability to secure the resources and the respect we need to do our jobs.

Of course it will always be a fight. And speaking of fighting, I want to spend a minute honoring you, our dedicated staff, our chapter leaders, our delegates and our activists. Every month you come here, you debate, you show up for rallies, you email, you call, you write. As delegates and chapter leaders you do endless work in your schools, for your schools, for your colleagues and for your students. We wouldn't have a union without you. Your collective commitment -- of chapters like PS 399, PS 114 or Brooklyn Tech -- and all of you who show us every month what it means to use our collective voice in the pursuit of fairness and justice - whether against an arbitrary principal or a school closing, or for the cause of equity, or resources, or simply what is right. Thank you for your fierce debates, your fidelity to democratic principles and your allegiance to our union. Your commitment has sustained our union and I can't thank you enough for that.

In an era when the labor movement has struggled, our union has not only endured; it has flourished. In an era when working people are fighting simply to stay in place, we have moved ahead.

You know we are in changing times and that requires changing strategies for delivering the best education possible for our kids. And we learn from history that in a time of a triple whammy of a global economy, a global recession and decades of anti union animus, the key to our survival and growth has been our adaptability to change. I hope we will look at change through the lens of what is good for kids, and fair to our members.

Have we accomplished enough? Absolutely not.

Do we have to find new ways, particularly in this economy, to maintain and build on our hard-fought gains? Of course we do.

Can we lift all our children to a new level of learning by ourselves? Not on your life.

But with the foundation we've laid, I'm hopeful we'll see more help on the horizon.

On the national level, we have much to do. For the first time in recent memory we have a President and Congress who understand the primacy of public education and who have asked all of us to do better. Unlike the Bush administration, President Obama has repeatedly stated that we need to do this with teachers, not to them -- but he has asked us to consider things that may make us uncomfortable.

There is no doubt that public education in this country is on the verge of a renaissance, one that will benefit our country's children and our future, but only if the voices of educators are heard and heeded.

As I said earlier, no one has had a better job than I; the honor of serving you has humbled me. I hope I have earned your trust and confidence.

Every single school I visit, every single email I answer, every time I express frustration or anger at some management act of arrogance or arbitrariness, every single fight I've led -- it's all in support of the most impressive, most caring, most hardworking group of people anywhere.

I thank you for the opportunity of serving and representing you and for the opportunity to serve our kids. You have been my finest teachers. I will always be only a phone call away. But this, our largest and greatest local in our largest and greatest city, will always be my home.

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