It is summer vacation and after many months of teaching, making supports and accommodations for my students, and writing IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans), I finally have time to watch a few movies from my favorite movie genre, documentaries. Here are a couple of documentaries that I've seen that have sparked some thoughts around unions.
After watching the PBS documentary, "Park Avenue: Wealth, Power, and the American Dream," (2012) by Academy Award director Alex Gibney and Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices, it got me thinking about how important unions are. Both documentaries highlight how important unions are to the lower-middle class in preserving fair treatment, fair benefits, and fair pay. The union in New York for teachers, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), ensures that we have proper health benefits, pension, and due process. The UFT argues on our behalf and makes sure we are neither taken advantage of nor accepting inappropriate pay, among other things. Our monthly salary in New York City, by the way, just breaks even with living expenses and does not really allow you to invest and save your money. So, in effect, we are scraping by. In any case, I feel lucky and grateful for my union; it helps ensure that I can teach to the best of my abilities, knowing that I will be a healthy and somewhat financially secure professional.
But, even mentioning "unions" can polarize people just like the mentioning of Teach for America can make two people feel like they are walking on egg shells, if one is for it and the other thinks its disastrous for education. A union is a force in and of itself that can lobby for its interest and protect its members from unwarranted abuses by employers and other agents. Left unchecked, though, it can also overextend its power. Many people remember the 2009 article in the New Yorker reporting about the Rubber Rooms in New York City where teachers were held indefinitely and paid according to their contract while their hearing was pending. The pay, I don't think, was the problem (although the time it took for the hearing to get to an independent arbitrator and the money wasted is a problem). The problem is with the logistics of how cases are handled in that these hearings become backlogged and no one addresses them in an efficient manner. It took between two to five years for a case to be heard by an independent arbitrator at the Department of Education. That timeline is unacceptable. If you are a perfectly competent teacher and you were unfairly fired because someone had an axe to grind with you, you should have a right to due process. Pay should not be suspended because it has not been proven that you are or are not competent. However, you should not be waiting around a room not doing your job while you wait for the hearing. The process was the problem and the process has since been revised for probationary teachers and others who get a discontinuance notice. The union and the Department of Education came to the decision together. It's good that there was discussion and eventual action regarding this issue. The discussions between the union and the DOE are like checks and balances, where one would hope both sides are open to listening and to self-edification.
These movies certainly made me think about how unions can be a powerful force for the good, but unions also need to be self-policing in making sure it does not overextend its power. So far, I think my union is doing a good job. With all the vitriol being written about unions and having a documentary lambasting teacher's unions, I think people need to understand that unions are not out for their own self-interest. They protect people in public service and protect their livelihood when they are doing their jobs. The narrative that unions protect "bad" teachers is so prolific that people forget the union's larger purposes. Also, in any occupation, there are lazy workers. Unions do not intentionally protect them just like how employers do not intentionally hire lazy workers. Unions follow measures and protocols such that there is due process. They do not knowingly protect "bad" workers upon knowing that there have been transgressions. On the contrary, they terminate them immediately if they know there have been transgressions.
I recently went to one of the screenings for a film featured in the New York Disability Film Festival. The film I saw was a selection of various award winning short films from around the globe. It's titled Reel Encounters 2012.
I chose to see Reel Encounters 2012 because I wanted to see what type of variety was being featured in the disability film festival. This was the first time I went to any film festival and the film proved to be provocative, intriguing, meaningful, and extremely real. The films brought to life what it means to live with a disability and what experiences people of any age endure.
I especially liked the focus on the angst adolescents feel during that period in their lives and how that can be exacerbated by a disability. The disabilities featured in Reel Encounters 2012 included blindness, cerebral palsy, and the competition and affection between a child in a wheelchair and his non-disabled peer.
I highly suggest seeing this film or the other acclaimed films in this film festival.
Here are a few films on the system of education in the United States, especially in New York, to watch or put on your film queue.
Waiting for Superman and The Lottery.
After watching these films, read some of these counter-narratives to get an overall perspective on the education debate (taken from my program blog at TC):
“Waiting for Superman” site and trailer http://www.tc.columbia.edu/news/article.htm?id=7655
TC article on the screening of “Waiting for Superman”
Rethinking School’s “NOT Waiting for Superman” movement
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/opinion/l08educ.html?_r=2&part Series of letters to the editors entitled "Who Will Rescue America’s Schools?" http://neatoday.org/2010/10/05/waiting-for-superman-resources/
National Education Association’s collection of resources http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2010/10/were-still-waiting-for-superman-here-in.html
“We’re still waiting for Superman here in Charterland” (A charter school parent speaks out)
DemocracyNow! analysis of “Waiting for Superman”
Coalition for Public Education/Coalición por la Educación Pública response to the film
The Nation article on the film
Trailer for “A Community Concern” a documentary on the power of community organizing to improve public education. Offers one counter-narrative to “Waiting for Superman”
Trailer for “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman” offers another counter-narrative to “Waiting for Superman”
I took a language policy course here at Teachers College, Columbia and we studied bilingual education in different parts of the world.
This is a really interesting video that I think everyone should watch. It's only fifty minutes.
BRIDGE OVER THE WADI FILM (50 MINUTES)
Here is my response (Read after you watch the video because there are spoilers)
Bridge over the Wadi is a film that leaves me a bit bewildered. The film captures much of the angst and frustration families and teachers experience in a bilingual and binational school. In fact, it captures so much of the tension in the families, communities, and teachers that I actually thought that the school would not continue. At the end of the film, though, the text tells us that everyone thought the school was a success and enrollment doubled the second year. The director sends mixed messages though, which makes me feel very frustrated with how he presented his material. The text at the end tells us it was a success. However, the two scenes preceding the final texts of the film are of a Jewish girl feeling guilty all alone because she claims her people took the land of the Arabs and a scene in which boys are talking about bombing each other when they get older. It is frustrating for the viewer because the film leaves many questions unresolved and ends the film with a brief texts saying it was successful and enrollment doubled. Perhaps the director intended to capture the inherent unanswerability some of the issues brought up.
An idea I want to focus on from the film—that I think can be answered—is how teachers deal with balancing the views of clashing cultural histories. As a bilingual school, the Jews and Arabs have a different set of historical facts that each believe is true. The Arabic teacher insists that the Arabs were “uprooted” from Israel when the Jews began the war. When she causes the Jewish children to feel guilty and sad for removing the Arabs, the teachers hold a meeting to discuss their and her teaching. A teacher points out that when teaching the meaning of the Jewish Independence Day, it is important to remember that “there is a distinction between our pain as adults and the children.” This was a particularly salient quote for me because it brings up the idea that in a classroom, even bilingual classrooms, whose history we teach must always be presented in an objective, safe space, where all children feel comfortable enough to discuss their ideas without becoming too emotionally involved. Important to the question of creating safe spaces and whose history we are teaching, is the question of how we are shaping students’ identities. We discussed in class that the model of teaching at this school can hopefully give the student’s a space to reimagine their current and future reality, to see new possibilities and opportunities for peace. The teachers intrigued me because they spoke mostly in Hebrew; Arabic, despite being the predominately dominant language in the community, was only spoken during the Arabic lesson.
The school is distinctly characterized by the language of those in power, Hebrew speakers, and Arab, just seems like another foreign language being learned, and not necessarily a supplementary language of instruction. The film addressed how the school included texts in bilingual format, Hebrew and Arabic, so the Hebrew students could help the Arabic students and vice versa. The underlying tension, though, between what the Arabs and Jews think of their history and right to Israel seem to influence the tone and attitudes of the teachers. It seems that Hebrew as the medium of instruction is tolerated now. This film really brought to light how bilingual education affects the communities and families. One father said that while he would like the school to be bilingual, he does not want it to be binational. By already demarcating the limits of how he views the schools, the father is setting parameters up for what should be taught and what should not be taught, something that is still under debate by the teachers. Other parents scoffed at Jewish parents letting their children bow to the chant of Allah. These scenarios brought to mind the difficulty of catering to a diverse student population when one is trying to be more deep and real about teaching another culture, rather than being superficial. It is about respecting another culture, but just as the Arabic teacher released her frustration, she has been so self-conscious about her mannerisms and attitudes that she’s tired of being so respectful.
My question is how can you establish a safe classroom environment to discuss/explore ideas that may be conflicting if you do not respect all parties involved? Bridge Over Wadi left me frustrated; while it was interesting to get a glimpse of a bilingual/binational school, the problems that arose in school and the presentation of those problems in the film were left unresolved. Even if they were resolved, the film does not show its audiences the potential that these schools have.
You can watch this documentary online for free until December 13, 2009:
The Principal Story
The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and do not reflect those of institutions, organizations, or employers associated with me, past or present.