The Investment (A Message To New Jersey Teachers)

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

Last week, I got to address the New Jersey Education Association about a number of different issues, but I need to leave this one note here for posterity. Here’s a remixed, written-out version of the remarks I made at the NJEA Convention. The intent of the message, and many of its controversial pieces, remain intact unapologetically. There’ll be video soon, and I’ll share it a.s.a.p.

I’d like to talk about the idea of investment, and what it means to pay into the work we do as a union. The Supreme Court handed Governor Chris Christie a victory recently in asserting that the current pension structure is unenforceable, paving the way for him to restructure the pension system as he pleases. We have every right to protest unfair pension regulations, along with overemphasis on standardized testing and lack of resources. It should make anyone who pays into their pensions, specifically teachers, furious, and for that, I side with people in that struggle.

But investing in public education means more than just pensions. We as teachers make an investment in our children emotionally and academically on a daily basis. That’s why we must invest in a truly public education inclusive of any and all children that come through our doors. The last century of public education has taught us that our public education system isn’t truly that public, and charter, private, and independent schools have capitalized on that to a degree. With the Friedrich’s case looming in the minds of teachers unions, our unions can only move in two directions. Either they go hand-in-hand with those who choose to destroy unions, or they transform themselves to become more social-justice minded and inclusive in the work we do.

In New Jersey, there’s been some discussion around teachers of color, and specifically Marylin Zuniga. With permission, I can now mention the things I do know about the case. A random person online decided to call Orange, NJ offices because of what he felt was a suspicious tweet from a first-year teacher. The person in charge of the decision to keep her or fire her has a cozy relationship with the police department already, and was inclined to fire her on the spot, specifically after the uproar on conservative news outlets. They started doing things like asking random parents who they knew wouldn’t approve about “radical teachers,” invoking red-scare tactics from decades ago.

Not until people on the ground and online did other outlets get informed about the case. Yet, the board still felt inclined to follow the police’s, err, the superintendent’s lead. In the middle of the proceedings, she went to pick up her stuff when her students yelled and screamed for one last goodbye in her now former classroom. She got her things, put it in her car, and started to drive home with her friends. Suddenly, a police car pulled her over, yelled at her, and gave her two options: she could give off on letting the cops search her car or they could bring in dogs. Sure enough, she chose the first, thinking they’d be more careful with her stuff. They proceeded to rip apart her work, rummage through the crevices, and searched her person until they made her cry. They did nothing to her friends, but held her at this stop for hours.

After they were done, they asked for her ID, and said, “You’re a teacher, right?” The police officer smirked, then drove away.

With this incident in mind, local organizers, and the parents and students who were in this teacher’s care, came to board meetings in support of the teacher. Even so, the board decided eventually to fire her, and blacklist her from districts across the state. An Ivy-League educated Latina comes to a community to teach love, empathy, and compassion to elementary school students. Was there another recourse for her besides firing her? Sure. Teacher turnover is a huge problem no matter how we look at it, and having a teacher of color who’s approved by both students and parents is a gem. We have dozens of ways to deal with things besides firing. You don’t have to like her politics nor her person, though, if you met her, you’d know she’s as outstanding a person as she is a teacher.

It bears mentioning that, for the purpose of this union’s work, if it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone in New Jersey, from Orange and Camden all the way to Princeton and Montclair.

We don’t need to look further than what happened in South Carolina to see what happens when we let police officers control our schools. We know we need to fight for our least represented, and yes, Black Lives do Matter. We must recognize that, as teachers, the folks we see all over the news are school-aged children. The folks with the most heart in New Jersey are school-aged children. Look at how the Newark Student Union decided to take up the fight for their schools. People thought the unions put them up to it. They said, “Nuh uh. We just happen to want better schools, and many of the folks who love and care about us happen to be the teachers we see in the schools you’re trying to destroy. And we’re going to protest like hell until we get what we want.”

We can’t operate like police do. Our jobs are not about breaking down children. We can’t keep contributing to the school to prison pipeline.

Our investment in our profession will require more than the tithes we pay to our union; it will require all of our voices. We shouldn’t look to the issues that affect us generally, but the issues that affect those of us in the most direct of situations. We should be activated in Newark and Paterson because education reform is happening there. If we can transform our union to one that addresses the issues in these places, everyone wins. This isn’t a tide that lifts all boats; it’s us moving the freaking sea floor.

Governor Chris Christie likes winning, and he wins whatever helps the 1%, and whatever is politically expedient. Our union can’t work this way. We have to learn to win and lose on principles. If the union wins, we won for the folks we should represent. If the union loses, we lose but in exposing the opposition for who they really are. Losing with principles leaves us in better position for the next fight. I don’t just want this win for teachers Stephanie Rivera or Okaikor Price, but for Mark Weber and Michael Doyle, too. I want this win so Melissa Katz has a profession to come to, one that’s less concerned about pensions and benefits than pedagogy and cultural competence.

So New Jersey, what are we waiting for? What will activate you? Because we deserve to have a profession that truly invests in all our schools, but there’s an investment of love, empathy, and compassion that we also need. Hope is an investment.

photo c/o

p.s. – Thanks to the NJEA for having me. Means a lot.