10/03/2013 01:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Game Changers: Paul Toner


Read the introduction to Game Changers.

Today's Game Changer is Paul Toner. Paul currently serves as the President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

What first motivated you to become an active member of your union?
I first got involved in the union when I happened to need the union to help me. I was a second year teacher and had just enrolled in evening classes at law school. I was told by a school administrator that I had to take "The Skillful Teacher," which was offered at the same time as my Contract Law class. My building rep, Arthur Gilman, pointed out that this was not a requirement and the Human Resources department agreed. I thanked Arthur and he said "You're welcome, and you're the new building rep for the Harrington School." I have been involved ever since and have seen the union as a way to bring about positive change in our schools and communities.

You mentioned to me that in your early teaching career you felt as though union leaders were "listening to the wrong people." How did that impact you as teacher and what did you do about it?
As I became more involved in my local union, I found that a minority of negative people seemed to be the loudest and dominated the union meetings. The president at the time was trying to do things differently but seemed unable to move forward past this negative group. My friends and I began to think that this was not good for our reputation as a union, for the members or the students. I decided to run for local president and was elected by a significant majority. I served as president of the Cambridge Teachers Association from 2001 to 2006.

Once I was elected president, I worked hard to establish positive working relationships with central office and building administrators as well as school committee members and community leaders. As a result of building these positive relationships, we were able to do things like create two extended learning time schools, a public Montessori school, a new and improved high school, an alternative high school program, and a new evaluation system for teachers. We were also able to start focusing on how we could work together on narrowing the achievement gap and attracting and retaining a diverse teacher population.

I've heard you say that the MTA is a "union of professional educators." What does this mean to you?
The word "union" means that we are a group of people who come together for the purposes of collective action in pursuit of some common goals. Traditionalists tend to believe that the only role for the teachers' union is to pursue better pay, benefits, and job protections for our members. We must continue to advocate for these things if we hope to build a strong teacher workforce, but I, along with the leadership of both national unions and many of our state and local leaders, believe that if we want to be treated as professionals and maintain the support of the public we must be equally zealous in our advocacy in promoting teacher quality and teacher-led reforms. We must advocate for setting high academic standards, promoting strong evaluation systems and designing better teacher preparation and professional development programs. We must also demand shared decision making authority in exchange for shared accountability. We need more site-based control and flexibility to meet the needs of students and communities.

Last year you negotiated a compromise with Stand for Children when they filed a ballot initiative in Massachusetts to require teacher performance, rather than seniority, to determine layoffs. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I was not happy with Stand for Children regarding their tactics and I wish they had never filed a ballot petition. Seniority has not been an issue here in Massachusetts, and it is not a state law. It is something that is determined at the local level, town by town and city by city. We had substantial work ahead of us to implement the new evaluation system, and many teachers were already feeling that they were being blamed for all the problems in public education.

We assessed our odds of prevailing on the ballot and determined that it would be an enormous challenge. The initiative was very complicated but easily reduced to an oversimplified sound bite: Every child deserves a great teacher; therefore, performance should be more important than seniority in personnel decisions. Our polling found that a vast majority of Massachusetts voters agreed with this simple proposition, as did 70% of our members.

I felt the choice was clear. We needed to take control of the debate. We received approval from the MTA Board and our MTA annual meeting delegates to try to keep the question off the ballot by negotiating a legislative alternative. Our bill was crafted to get rid of the damaging provisions in the initiative that would undermine collective bargaining, Professional Teaching Status, and due process rights. That could only be done if we could find common ground on the role of seniority.

Like most MTA members, I believe that experience is very important. Teachers -- like lawyers, doctors and journalists -- become masters of their craft only after years of practice. On the other hand, performance does matter. I believe that if we want to be treated as true professionals, then we have to agree that performance should be the primary factor in personnel decisions--as long as we are involved in setting the performance standards through collective bargaining and can ensure that protections from abuse are in place.

The alternative legislation protects the right to bargain over evaluations and personnel practices. Preserving those rights is huge, particularly in light of how they are being gutted in so many other states. In addition, under the legislation districts must inform the state how they plan to prepare teachers and administrators in the new evaluation system. Only with a solid, evidence-based evaluation system in place can we have confidence that teacher performance is being assessed fairly.

By coming up with a reasonable alternative to the ballot initiative, we showed that unions are willing to promote sensible change, but also willing and able to defend our core values. Those values include protecting collective bargaining and promoting quality public education for all students. I believe we must take charge of teacher quality and elevate our voices on all issues related to the profession moving forward. We can't lead by simply saying "no."

I know you've come under fire from some of your constituents for that decision. How do you manage taking positions that not everyone agrees with?
It comes with the territory. As vice president and president I have had to deal with the Great Recession, Race to the Top, teacher evaluation, pension reform, municipal health insurance reform, Stand for Children, and a variety of other issues. Despite what our critics say, MTA and NEA are very democratic organizations and have regular meetings, debates, discussions, and votes. When we do finally take positions on issues, I am confident we are speaking for the majority of our members despite the criticism of a vocal minority.

Sometimes teachers may feel anxious about speaking out for change. What advice would you have for teachers who are contemplating union involvement?
If you are a dues paying union member, your ideas and voice counts. I urge every member to get involved in their local, state, and national unions either by volunteering for committees, acting as delegates to state or national meetings, attending local meetings, organizing a professional issues committee, hosting socials for your new members, or countless other ways to be involved. Whatever you do, don't stop speaking up. We need a new generation of educators to step up and get involved. The union is what you make of it. You really can make a difference.

What do you see as the future of the union?
I believe that if our local, state, and national leaders get more involved in the debate concerning how to improve our schools by advocating for the best interests of our students and communities, as well as our members, then the unions will grow and prosper. Our members want us to lead the profession and be the architects of reform, rather than the objects of it.

What advice would you give to teachers who are looking to be change agents in or outside their classrooms?
As educators, you are change agents every day in your classrooms. Please continue to do what you do for your students and community. Outside of the classroom, speak up for the policies and programs that you believe are in the best interests of your students. I hope you will choose to do so through your local union, but if you face roadblocks there, get involved at the state and national level. If you are still unable to break through the bureaucracy, go outside and advocate through other organizations and advocacy groups. We need thoughtful educators to get involved and grapple with the issues we face if we are to grow as an organization and improve our schools.

If you are truly committed to the best interests of your students and the profession as a whole, demand to be heard.

Just for Fun

1. Biggest pet peeve? Extremists, demagogues, black and white positions

2. Childhood ambition? To be President of the United States

3. Teachers are... Powerful

Read more Game Changers.

Do you know an education Game Changer we should interview? Let us know.