by Kenneth Eban
I recently started reading the book, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you haven’t read it yet, quick spoiler alert, it is a letter to his son. As he is detailing his time in Howard and understanding how to live in a black body in this society he reflects on the connection between word and thought. He says, “loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” That is to say, our language and words informs our thoughts. However, I’d like to extrapolate that. I would say words inform thought, and our thoughts inform our actions, which have real-life implications on people.
A few years ago, Students for Education Reform-Minnesota (SFERMinn) took on a campaign called Don’t Shut Us Out. It was a campaign aimed at school districts and teacher unions to keep their negotiations open to the public throughout the entirety of the negotiation process. Blah, Blah, Blah. The real reason why this issue is important is because a family sends their most precious asset through those schoolhouse doors and into a classroom full of children eager to learn. The leader of that classroom and the person that spends the most time with your child outside of your house, their teacher, is standing in front of them. Do we as community members ever think about the way that teacher ended up being the leader of your child’s classroom and the terms under which he or she leads that classroom?
It is not just random. It starts and ends with those contract negotiations that SFERMinn fought to keep open to the public two years ago. We had to fight hard to keep those negotiating sessions open. We learned how important that is from observing negotiations a few times, and seeing the school district leadership and teacher unions are deciding the terms of how teachers would work in the worst performing schools. There were many loose and useless informing the process of negotiating how teachers end up teaching the most vulnerable kids.
The big lesson for us: contract negotiations are not inconsequential. The teacher contract between a school district and teacher union is a policy package that directly impacts your child.
You may be thinking, if it is such a big deal, why don’t we hear much about it. The answer is that it is such a big deal that they do not want you to hear it. I’m reminded of Jon Stewart’s last episode where he talks about the 3 types of bullshit. One of those types of bullshit is taking very simple sentiments and making them complicated. Tell me why the Minneapolis teacher contract is over 230 pages as opposed to the Saint Paul’s which is 108 pages. Tell me why it is difficult find out when and where contract negotiations are taking place? Tell me why contract negotiations are happening in the middle of the day when most people are at work? Finally, tell me why the community never gets to hear what the priorities are from both sides? Why is it hard to find a summary of what was discussed, and what are the contentious points of the negotiations?
Our school districts have not shown us that they deserve our blind trust to handle these decisions without any spotlight or accountability. Some of the most recent decisions made by Minneapolis Public Schools in particular does not build confidence about their commitment to children, especially children of color when they have such important implications regarding how a teacher ends up standing in front of children of color. It is important we understand. It is important we demand for an explanation, clarity, and transparency. It is important that we eliminate the loose and useless words they use that forms their contract and deeply affects our children and our community.