Advancing the fight for professional voice

THE AFT TASK FORCE on Professionalism continues refining what it means to be a professional, identifying our members’ professional needs and considering what we must do to eliminate barriers to being a professional. The task force met in October after a series of listening sessions in which it gathered members’ ideas, all toward the goal of drafting a resolution to put before our union. Activists from every sector of the AFT, including AFT PSRP, are represented on the task force.

During its first meeting earlier this year, custodian Sonia Chavez spoke to the need for a living wage. The second meeting in New Orleans this fall immediately preceded the AFT’s annual Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference, emphasizing how tightly linked our basic rights are to being treated with dignity and respect at work.

As task force chair, AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker welcomed members, who then examined aspects of professionalism such as a commitment to excellence and continuous improvement in knowledge and skills, as well as autonomy, authority and respect.

Ricker summed up the feelings of many school and college support staff this way: “I just want the dignity of my work recognized.”

We need to expose some of the code language used to belittle employees, she added, and “elevate the dignity of our work.”

Susan Snyder, an educational assistant and board member of the Saint Paul (Minn.) Federation of Teachers, said: “People just want to be heard.

They want to be heard, and valued by being heard.” Yet, that basic recognition—respectful listening—is often withheld.

“Lately, our district has decided that anyone and everyone can do my job, with a little training,” said Sandra Davis, a special education paraprofessional and PSRP chair of the Baltimore Teachers Union. “We have to be the biggest advocates for our jobs.”

Later in the fall, Davis shared with other PSRP leaders her ideas on how support staff should be treated more professionally:

  • First, stop lumping together all PSRPs, no matter how vastly different their jobs, by giving them the same one-size-fits-all job evaluation, whether they work as food service workers, building engineers, school bus drivers, clerical workers, paraprofessionals or groundskeepers.
  • Second, make sure those evaluations are part of a fair and objective appraisal system.
  • Third, provide coaching throughout the ranks of employees, not just at the top.
  • Fourth, hire qualified, competent and trained managers who will be held accountable.
  • And fifth, set and enforce a mechanism for due process, so that all employees are treated fairly.

Growing professionally

Supervisors need to know how to do everything workers do, and they need to advocate for employees’ professional development, said Jamye Smith, a paraprofessional and member of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Educational Support Team.

Robert Chacanaca, a school security officer and president of the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Council of Classified Employees, said his school district has lost one avenue for professional growth—peer review and assistance—to budget cuts brought on by people who constantly attack funding for public education. Indeed, the task force is committed to lifelong learning and advancement. Besides professional development, other visible proof of professionalism, task force members said, would include paid sick days, smaller student-staff ratios and greater community engagement.

One member noted that it’s important for the task force to meet nationally because too many people see the problem of not being treated like a professional as unique to their school or college; but in reality, the fight for professionalism is national—even global. PSRPs aim to turn that around.

“Our voices will be heard,” Chacanaca said. “People don’t see PSRPs as professionals, but we are every bit as professional as a teacher. We’re overlooked, we’re often in the background, but we’re right in front when it comes to a union of professionals.”

Valuing social capital

Researcher Carrie Leana, a professor of organizations and management at the University of Pittsburgh, shared her studies on what makes organizations work better. Leana measured both human and social capital, where human capital reflects individual knowledge and skills, while social capital is new knowledge generated when peers interact and share.

One thing that makes workplaces better is social capital, which unlike human capital has received little attention, whether in public schools and colleges or child care settings. For example, in fields such as nursing, empathetic care is a combination of behaviors, Leana said, including going the extra mile, cultivating relationships with patients and colleagues, and engaging emotionally.

However, even empathy, shown to improve patient outcomes, can be lost under unfavorable working conditions like high patient load.

What’s more, she added, heavy workloads combined with financial hardship have a taxing effect on the brain, taking a cognitive and emotional toll on workers. Research shows a relationship between burnout and turnover. If workers feel high empathy but low efficacy, they’re likely to leave.

In education, strong connections among colleagues help students. An increase in a team’s social capital produced almost three times the effect on student growth as an increase in teacher ability. That is, social capital benefited students by a 5.7 percent gain, while individual human capital benefited students with a 2.2 percent gain.

This suggests that schools and districts ought to change their “Teacher of the Year” model—with its focus on standout teachers—to more collaborative communities of practice among teachers and support personnel.

A combination of student characteristics, human capital and social capital is the best predictor of student growth, Leana said. Yet right now, education policy focuses almost exclusively on the first two factors, ignoring social capital. School and college staff, as well as healthcare professionals, already know that collaboration is key, Ricker pointed out. “Human capital versus social capital describes virtually every negotiating table I’ve sat at.”

Being heard

Over a working dinner, members heard from a panel of local professionals in education and healthcare. When Ricker asked the panelists if they had advice for AFT members in Chicago, Detroit or Philadelphia, which are being buffeted by attacks on the professionalism of their entire public sector, they had a single answer: “Organize.”

Despite powerful opponents and heartbreaking setbacks, task force members and panelists both urged their fellow members not to lose heart.

The task force will recommend actions the AFT can take that will enable our union to be considered a champion of respect in the workplace and a gatekeeper of professionalism. It will keep gathering ideas from AFT members through their program and policy councils.

Ricker says she would like to see the fruits of our work on professionalism make their way into local unions’ contract language, and is looking forward to following up “in a starburst sort of way,” expanding the conversation in as many directions as possible.

This work is leading to a resolution that will be presented to the union’s executive council in May, in advance of the AFT national convention this July.

PSRP Reporter, Winter 2015 Download PDF (1.03 MB)
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