Jay Chuong

Music teacher
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Jay ChuongNothing can crystalize the challenges in education better than a teacher’s frontline story—a moment in school life that brings everything into focus. Philadelphia music teacher Jay Chuong has such a story, one tagged to a system reeling from cuts in the aftershock of the Great Recession. And, by working through his union, he was able to share his story at the highest layers of power.

A member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Chuong was one of several teachers invited by the union to travel to Washington, D.C., and speak with policymakers, just as Congress and the White House were considering funding to prevent devastating cuts to education in schools nationwide. Chuong shared with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan his tale of how he would load up his car with plastic buckets from Home Depot and drive to seven schools in the city, working with more than 175 students, mostly teaching them how to play percussion on the buckets, since many of his cash-strapped schools couldn’t afford adequate music equipment. He told policymakers how he ran the entire music program in some schools, teaching students how to play band instruments, including clarinet, flute, trumpet, trombone and saxophone. And his story drove home the message of dedication and determination on the part of educators who know that students deserve a rich, well-rounded curriculum, filled with essentials like music and the arts.

“I wouldn’t have had that opportunity to tell my story without the AFT and PFT,” says Chuong, adding that it is vital that frontline educators have such a chance to speak truth to power. Even today, when budget crises still beset Philadelphia schools and other districts across the nation, Chuong says union activism remains the reliable bulwark and the collective union voice “does so much to keep music educators there for our students.”