The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

You Can’t Scare Me; I’m Stickin’ to the Union!

I can’t count all the times I’ve read articles condemning teacher unions for protecting incompetent teachers or forcing ones who don’t want to belong to pay dues anyway.  Isn’t there anything different that union haters can complain about?

Although I’m not ready to defend all the teachers unions in the U.S.– because I don’t know them- I will exhort the excellence of  Madison Teachers Incorporated (MTI) in Wisconsin.  I belonged to it as a teacher and worked with it as a principal.

Before I came to live and work in Madison, I taught in three different school districts in New Jersey and was never aware of any local unions.  I remember having the opportunity to represent teachers in my own school once or twice, asking the School Board for a salary increase or better working conditions.  But those were just “requests” with no power behind them.  Sometimes the Board acquiesced; more often, it didn’t.

What I remember even better, however, were unreasonable conditions at a couple of schools.  For example, in my first school male teachers were automatically paid more than female teachers because “they were heads of households.”  Never mind that there were also many single women teachers who were supporting not only  themselves but also other family members.  Also, at that school  teachers had no breaks on most school days.  We supervised our kids at recess, ate lunch with them, and were required to teach them PE twice a week.  In addition, there was a strict dress code, and we were warned that we’d better not be seen in any local pubs. I stayed at that school for only one year.

Things were never that bad at any other school where I taught in New Jersey.  But at times there were excessive demands, unfair decisions, also some racial and religious discrimination that we just had to put up with.

In Madison, school conditions were better right from the start.  Salaries were higher, class loads were reasonable, and there were planning periods during every school day.  Soon after arriving I joined the union, and later I became our school representative.  During my eleven years as a teacher in Madison, I filed one grievance against the school district, in conjunction with several other teachers.  The union took up our cause and secured a decision in our favor.

Still, I was not aware of all that our union did for teachers until I became a principal. Working with the union I was able to help a few of our school staff members caught in difficult situations.  First, we managed to  get a leave of absence for our school librarian who wanted to take care of her dying mother. Then we fought for our school nurse, who was emotionally incapacitated for some months by a family tragedy.  She was being was pressured to resign by her superiors, but the union got her a leave of absence instead.  She returned after a few months and performed her job just fine. Finally, one of our teachers who had been transferred out at the end of the school year because of low student number projections, was denied the right to return when the  number of students arriving in the fall  turned out to be much larger. The district replaced her with a new hire.  But the union took up her cause, and the district relented.   About two weeks into the school year, our teacher  was returned to us. In all those instances, the union prevailed and our staff members received fair treatment.

I also remember union assistance on the few occasions when we had problems with poorly functioning teachers. They  worked with me and those teachers  to resolve matters swiftly in a just and dignified manner. The union was particularly helpful to an older teacher who had been effective in the past, but now was no longer able to do everything that needed to be done.  They  also helped  one younger teacher who had developed a chronic illnesses that caused frequent absences. Both teachers resigned, but with unanticipated  benefits from the school district.

Over the thirteen years I was principal of that school, the MTI was our partner in preserving and furthering our teachers’ dedication to their work and our school’s excellence.  I can’t believe that other unions are not doing similar good work around the country.  How come no one is talking or writing about it?

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Sunshine in Seattle

I suspect that most of you have heard the good news from Seattle where the recent teacher strike was settled by giving teachers most of what they had fought for.  Below I have posted a full account as it appeared in Valerie Strauss’ blog last week. Tomorrow  I will give you an account of my own experiences as a teacher with and without a union to support me.


Seattle teachers went on strike for a week this month with a list of goals for a new contract. By the time the strike officially ended this week, teachers had won some of the usual stuff of contract negotiations — for example, the first cost-of-living raises in six years — but also less standard objectives.

For one thing, teachers demanded, and won, guaranteed daily recess for all elementary school students — 30 minutes each day. In an era when recess for many students has become limited or non-existent despite the known benefits of physical activity, this is a big deal, and something parents had sought.

What’s more, the union and school officials agreed to create committees at 30 schools to look at equity issues, including disciplinary measures that disproportionately affect minorities.

Several days after the end of the strike, the Seattle School Board voted for a one-year ban on out-of-school suspensions of elementary students who commit specific nonviolent offenses, and called for a plan that could eliminate all elementary school suspensions.

Other wins for students in Seattle’s nearly 100 traditional public schools include:

Teachers won an end to the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate them — and now, teachers will be included in decisions on the amoun of standardized testing for students. This evaluation practice has been slammed by assessment experts as invalid and unreliable, and has led to the narrowing of curriculum, with emphasis on the two subjects for which there are standardized tests, math and English Language arts.

Special education teachers will have fewer students to work with at a time. In addition, there will be caseload limits for other specialists, including psychologists and occupational therapists.

Seattle teachers had said they were not only fighting for pay raises but to make the system better for students. It sounds like they did.


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Teacher Innovation is Still Alive and Kicking!

I’m pleased to be able to start off this week with a post that was drawn to my attention by a faithful reader, Nancy Belkov.  Nancy began her teaching career in the school where I was principal in Madison Wisconsin and now lives in the Boston area and creates a math book series titled, “Use Your Math Power.”  Nancy found this story on the blog “Mathminds” by Kristen Gray.  I think that the teacher innovation described below is worth emulating in other middle or high schools, not only in the cafeteria at lunch time, but also when students enter a classroom before the lesson begins.


It is amazing to me what a well oiled machine our cafeteria is each day! Amidst the near 800 students walking in and out, the volume of students all talking over one another, the perfectly timed staggered schedules, the forgotten utensils, and spilled food and drinks, the students still get in and out of there within 30 minutes each and every day without fail. The wonderful people working those lunches are absolutely amazing!

As I walk around the cafeteria, or even stand outside in the hallway, I hear all of the different types of conversations…some are about their lunches, or about their classes that morning, or possibly even about their classmates. However, at a glance around the cafeteria, there are other students who are not talking at all and some tables are even eating in silence. While I appreciate students who may want to eat in silence, I wonder if there are others who need a topic in which to engage in conversation.

When my colleague Erin suggested putting up some type of slide presentation on the projector screen on the stage during lunch, I thought it was a genius idea! She said it could be like the previews in a movie theater that everyone watches before the feature presentation. Like most ideas with me, we jumped right in. We came up with prompts for students to use as a piece of their conversations and spark interesting conversations around the cafeteria. We put 15 ideas together in a looping ppt, with a 30 second transition between slides.

It was so fun to walk around and see students pointing at the screen and offering what they thought the answer would be and explaining why! What a way of creating a student culture that demonstrates how differently and creatively we can all think about the same thing.

Like any idea, there are always ways to improve and this idea is no different! We have brainstormed ways to include pics of the students, our Peacemaker awards (shout outs for students and/or teachers who are caught doing great things ), pics/fun facts about the teachers, and ways for all of the students to contribute ideas/prompts for the presentation. My colleague Melissa came up with the adorable name of “Chat-n-Chew” which is so much better than “lunch presentation” and offered to have a group of her students design future presentations and of course, they are the “Chat-n-Chew Crew.” Each homeroom teacher will have suggestion forms for their students to send to Melissa’s  class to use in their presentation creation.

One day, I will get Erin on here to blog (I hope she is reading this) because she has so many wonderful ideas to share!

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A Sip of Whine

I started this blog a little more than a month ago because I wanted people to know about the good things going on in our public schools and the positive changes possible in the future.  For at least three years, I have been reading–and contributing essays and comments to — Diane Ravitch’s and Valerie Strauss’ blogs . But so many of their posts these days are reporting bad news that I was getting depressed, and I thought that maybe others were. too.  So, I decided that a new blog was needed to report on the other side of the coin, even though it rarely falls that way these days.

Since I started blogging, I have been pleased with the numbers of readers some days and dismayed on other days when those numbers go down to only two or three.  It looks like the day of the week influences readers more than the title of a post, so I understand why the weekend numbers are higher.

Nevertheless, I had hoped for larger numbers by this time.  Maybe the field of bloggers is already too big; maybe the topics I’ve chosen are not that compelling, or maybe not enough people who feel the way I do about education are aware of this blog.

What this whine boils down to is my humble plea for your help.  If you loyal readers have friends or colleagues who might be interested in “The Treasure Hunter,” please tell them about it and suggest they give it a try. And, as I’ve said more than once before, I’d love it if some readers would contribute pieces about the good things going on in the schools they are familiar with.  Your assistance would would cheer me up immensely and, maybe, help me to write better and more often.

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How Do Teachers Get to Carnegie Hall?

As the old joke goes,“How do I get to Carnegie Hall?“ “Practice, practice, practice.” It is no joke that teachers get to classrooms by hard work, and that once they get there the real work just begins. What too many people don’t understand about teaching is that it is an on-stage/off-stage profession, just as it is for musicians, lawyers, actors, physicians, singers, and the religious clergy. In order to perform competently before an audience, you have to do a lot of work beforehand  and afterward that outsiders never know about.

For teachers the off-stage work every day may include reading and grading student papers, keeping records, contacting parents,  planning lessons, attending faculty meetings,  and, most time-consuming of all, reflecting on their recent teaching and searching out new materials and strategies to meet the  needs of diverse students. Many teachers also take college classes after school to maintain or improve their certification.

The fact that such work may take from two to four hours outside of the school day—and, often, a chunk of the weekend–is less important than the effort and expertise necessary to do it well. Good teachers are never just textbook monitors, who merely assign work and check that it is done; they are researchers of knowledge from many different sources, re-figuring that knowledge and skills into suitable forms for  students, and guiding them through the process.

Another fact is that there are no shortcuts. Although experienced teachers have an easier time with preparing lessons and reflecting on student performance than novices, they are also the ones who reach out to find new teaching strategies and a broader and deeper interpretation of the prescribed curriculum. In addition, they are usually the ones who care enough to mentor their less experienced colleagues.

Often teachers have been mocked for working only ten months while being paid for a full year. What outsiders don’t recognize is that the number of school days posted publically are for students, not teachers.  Before schools open for the year teachers spend several days setting up their classrooms, gathering materials, and meeting as a school staff. And after schools close for the summer, teachers have to strip their classrooms to the bare walls so they can be cleaned and refurbished for the following school year.  In addition, teachers must work some days  during the school year that students have off, filling out report cards, attending school district meetings, and holding parent-teacher conferences.

As for how teachers spend the summer days left to them, there are many variations.  Some teach summer school, some work at part-time jobs, some take it easy, and many make up for all the things they didn’t do around the house and for their families during the school year.  I took further education courses most summers and often saw teacher friends in the same classrooms or walking around campus.  May I be forgiven for the few days I spent each summer lolling at the  community swimming pool and dreaming.

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