Some Mpls teachers of color seek union leadership change

Submitted photo Alexis Mann

Conclusion of a two-part story

In part one of this story, the MSR spoke with teachers disillusioned by the Minneapolis Federations of Teachers (MFT59) efforts to support teachers and students of color. This week they give examples of how the union could provide that support. Tiered licensing is one example.

 When tiered licensing was introduced a few years ago, it was heavily supported by Education for Excellence, a teacher-led nonprofit organization that “ensures teachers have a leading voice in the policies that impact their students and professions,” according to their website.

Related story: Some Mpls teachers of color decry lack of union support

Teachers typically come into their profession with a traditional teaching license. The tiered system creates alternative routes.

Alexis Mann, a teacher at Harrison High School, describes a teacher on their staff who had a culinary arts degree, 20 years of experience as a master chef, and some classroom work with students. He did not, however, have a bachelor’s degree.

He came to Harrison through a Tier 1 license. Unlike teachers who come in with the traditional license, he must renew his license annually, cannot transfer to another district, and cannot be a member of the union or be tenured.

Harrison has 10 teachers of whom three have tier-one licenses. All are former educational assistants who started with their Fresh Start program in 2015 and were able to come in as teachers through the tiered system. Pauline Cotton, also a teacher at Harrison, supports the tiered system, saying that the licensing test is not the best determinate of working well with the students at Harrison.

 “Our students want teachers who are committed, who stay, who relate to them. But if you send in the teachers who passed the test, they are not [always] relatable for our students.”

Both Mann and Cotton are proponents of tiered licenses because of their ability to diversify Minneapolis’ teaching staff. “The old licensing system, that is the system where the achievement gap was born,” explains Mann. “And under that licensing system it has continued to grow.”

The teachers we spoke to have nothing but positive things to say about Education for Excellence. “The whole thing about E for E is, they have done more to support increasing teacher diversity,” says Mann. “They have done more to support empowering members to be leaders in the union than our own union has. And we don’t have to pay to be a part of this organization.”

The controversy surrounding Educators for Excellence has been tied to where they get their donations: Walmart and the Gates Foundation. More recently they have been attempting to rid themselves of the perception of being anti-union by being more particular about who they accept donations from.

“I would argue that our own union is the actual union buster,” says Mann. “What has our union done in the way of legislation except for trying to take apart the tiered licensing system?”

In regards to tiered-licensing, Wiese wrote, “State law treats Tier 1 teachers as second-class educators, and it needs to stop. The MFT believes that it is fundamentally unfair and a violation of our principles of education equity for our district to provide lower pay, lesser benefits and fewer academic freedoms to T1 teachers than teachers with higher-level tiers.

Submitted photo Pauline Cotton

“That’s what’s happening because the law bans Tier 1 teachers from joining Minneapolis Federation of Teachers with other teachers who are doing the same job. As a result, T1 teachers don’t have the same bargaining power or resources to enforce their contracts as other teachers. In time, this disparity will grow wider,” wrote Wiese.

“This isn’t only an issue for educators. Students are affected too. We believe MFT could negotiate more persuasively for the support and resources our T1 teachers need to expand their professional training and move up the ladder to a Tier 4 license if we were all the member of the same unit. All the students in our district, no matter which schools they attend, deserve close, productive relationships with teacher who are well trained in the art and science of teaching.”

Over the summer, Cotton did a residency with Education for Excellence where she learned about how unions can be effective in supporting their members. Though Cotton had lost interest in what MFT was doing after her initial contact with them, Mann began having meetings at Harrison updating teachers on what the union was working on. At one such meeting, Wiese attended so that teachers could ask questions.

“We are a school that is predominately African American students and predominately African American teachers,” says Cotton, “so we have really experienced a lot of the inequities in resources, treatment, along with our students.”

Cotton asked Wiese if she had a background in special education, because she wanted to know if she could relate to their issues. Mental health days, hazardous pay, and retention bonuses were high on the list for teachers at Harrison because of the students they work with.

“No one wants to be around these students because of their aggressive behavior, whether it is verbal or physical. But someone has to educate them,” Cotton says. “So you get a few people who have the passion to do [it], but there is no incentive for them, and then after a while there is nothing to keep us here.”

Cotton says she feels safe in her school. In the last three years retention and leadership has been good. “I won’t say it’s the district or the union, but there are people who really have a passion for students and will give them the commitment that they so very need.”

Asked about her experience in special education, Wiese could only tell them of one special education student she worked with in her class for seven months. “She didn’t really have any answers,” Cotton says.

“When I left that meeting I didn’t really have any hope in the union. And it has really been hard for me to go to the union or have any trust in them, because I really don’t think that they have me as a teacher of color, or a teacher that works in a very aggressive environment, [in mind].”

But the resources and support she needs have come from Education for Excellence, who she says, unlike her union, organizes teachers by coming to them in their schools without collecting dues.

Muhammad said in 2014 the St. Paul Federation of Teachersworked in a way that uses their community as their asset. Months before their contract was set to expire, they created a study group of parents and community members and drafted their contract negotiation together.

“When they went to the negotiation table, parents and community were there also fighting for that contract. It was mutually beneficial, and when the district said no, the parents were okay with the teachers striking and going forward with it because they were a part of it.”

Muhammad says MFT has their own ideas of what to fight for, and currently it is fully funded schools. “Their answer to the achievement gap is fully funded schools. It’s not the contract. It’s not holding teachers accountable for racial harassment and low expectation of our students.”

At the January MFT meeting, Mann tossed her hat in the ring as a nominee for president of MFT59. Muhammad is running as vice president.

“As long as we continue with the same type of leadership, students of color, teachers of color will continue to be disadvantaged,” says Mann. “We will continue to be disenfranchised by the system.”