Back at school, AFT members keep solving problems

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AFT president Randi Weingarten kicked off her 2012 back-to-school tour on Aug. 29 with stops in Cleveland and Berea, Ohio, where she saw examples of local unions partnering with their communities to improve education for all kids.

The AFT president started her morning with a television interview by Chris Jansing on MSNBC. Asked about the Republican convention, Weingarten said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s slamming of teachers unions was pretty consistent with his party’s attitude toward educators, noting that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has said he would keep the U.S. Department of Education alive just to use it as a club against unions. Romney clearly is trying to divide working people from their unions, she added, which won’t solve any problems. His talk is “full of anger and not full of answers,” given that the GOP vision of school reform has been widely tested for a decade and has failed.

Randi Weingarten and Roz Painter-GoffiRandi Weingarten with Berea Federation of Teachers president Roz Painter-Goffi.

Weingarten next met with about 20 community leaders, many of them faith leaders and representatives of citywide coalitions, for a luncheon at the Cleveland Teachers Union downtown. CTU president and AFT vice president David Quolke introduced her as someone “with a leadership style that leads to solutions,” and the group proceeded to discuss education issues such as recruiting minority teachers and adequate funding for school support staff, who are vital to many programs, including art, music and physical education. Weingarten offered a brief outline of union-sponsored programs that level the playing field for children by mitigating the effects of poverty.

The Rev. Timothy Eppinger, pastor of God’s Tabernacle of Faith Church in Warrensville Heights, described a coalition that approaches the business community not simply by asking for money but by initiating a long-term approach to career pathways in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Together they have rounded up 100 businesses, from the Cleveland Clinic to law firms, and set up paths to college in which students can shadow professionals on the job, work at summer internships, get mentoring and earn scholarships.

As a direct result of the meeting, the Cleveland Teachers Union signed up luncheon participants to join a bus tour to a wraparound school in Cincinnati, so they could see another model in which community support is making up for inadequate public funding.

Weingarten praised the community leaders for their deep understanding of the dignity of work and their efforts on behalf of “workers and the greater good.”

The AFT president then headed to Roehm Middle School in Berea, just south of Cleveland, where she visited the classrooms of Mary Beth Cistolo, whose students were discussing the mission of the Mars rover Curiosity; Johnny Bollin, whose seventh-graders used physical props to explore the geography of Greece; and art teacher Heather Courtwright, where students imitated her drawing techniques and then eagerly posed with Weingarten for tweets of themselves and their sketches.

The AFT president also met with Berea Federation of Teachers president Roz Painter-Goffi, school superintendent Mike Sheppard and principal Jason Niedermeyer.

On the spur of the moment, Weingarten dropped in on eighth-grade math teacher Brooke Schlather, whose door sported a poster saying “Open for learning.” The AFT member said she’d just read about the union’s new Share My Lesson initiative the day before in the AFT publication American Teacher and was excited to learn more about it later that afternoon during a presentation by Weingarten and AFT staffer Heidi Glidden. “I spend so much time looking for materials online,” Schlather said. “This will help.”

Share My Lesson is a global network of educators who share strategies online—anything from a tip or a worksheet to an entire curriculum. The partnership between the AFT and TES Connect, officially launched in July, enables anyone who works with students to register and post materials online for sharing.

It’s free, Weingarten told a roomful of educators and guests in the school library, adding, “It is yours.”

Right now, Share My Lesson has more than 200,000 resources across grade levels and subject areas, and it’s growing rapidly. Early childhood resources and materials for special populations will be added soon. Berea teachers Cara McGregor and Holly Lamovsky, who contributed to Share My Lesson, described their work reviewing resources.

Ford Middle School teacher Jinnifer Roach said Share My Lesson defies the stereotype of unions caring only about their own members. “We’re a union, yes. And we’re strong, yes,” she said. “But we care about kids, absolutely.”

Weingarten’s back-to-school tour continued Aug. 30 in Albuquerque, N.M. [Annette Licitra/photos by Janet Century/video by Brett Sherman]