Anna Bean, MSW, Campaign Coordinator
Role in TU:
I coordinate TU members' work with the Dignity in Schools Campaign as well as our school-based organizing and workshops across the city. I also shot and edited TU’s documentary Growing Fairness.
Fun Fact: I like to sing.
Story: As the daughter of a community organizing episcopal priest and a social worker, I was driven to work for racial and economic justice from early on in my life. I majored in Culture and Media Studies at the New School’s Eugene Lang College, where I learned about intersectional feminism and became obsessed with reproductive justice. After college I made a short film called Obvious Child with my two best friends that sought to rewrite the dominant cultural narrative around unplanned pregnancy (now it’s a feature film!) and organized with it while making videos for advocacy groups and writing for BUST Magazine. But I wanted to work more directly with people in the fight for social justice, so I got my masters in social work at Hunter College and focused on community organizing, planning & development. It was in my fieldwork at two NYC high schools where I learned more deeply about the school-to-prison pipeline and the attack on public education as well as the Dignity in Schools Campaign and Teachers Unite! I feel so lucky every single day to work with and learn from educators who are so committed to building a better education system with their students & their families, connecting the work they do in their classrooms to a city-wide and national movement.
Sally Lee, founding Executive Director
Role in TU: My job is to sustain and grow Teachers Unite's organizational capacity in line with our principles, and help link our work to social movements we care about. I represent Teachers Unite on the Coordinating Committee of the national Dignity in Schools Campaign.
Fun Fact: To put myself through graduate school, I tutored child actors on movie sets in New York City. You can see my name in the credits in The Nanny Diaries, Sex in the City (the first one), and a few other movies you will probably never see in your life.
Story: I come from an African American and multiracial family that highly values education. Growing up in very diverse part of downtown Manhattan, I identified public education as the way New Yorkers could learn together and solve the problems of the world. When I finally did become a teacher, I watched a growing wave of gentrification marginalize my Black and Latino/a students’ families' voices in our school. My sense of powerlessness as a classroom educator is what drove me out of teaching and motivated the birth of Teachers Unite. As an early member of NYCoRE (New York Collective of Radical Educators), I felt there was a need for an institution that would support the leadership development of the newest generation of teacher activists, and augment the voice of educators looking to make real change in society. Teachers Unite has grown to be truly membership-led, and our members inspire and challenge me every day to strengthen our organization; I have little doubt that today’s social movement is about to be radically transformed by their leadership and commitment.
(Tyler's story can be found in the list of Organizing Council members found below)
Lisa Donlan, CEC 1 President
Fun Fact: I once experienced the adrenaline rush of a rock star when Jane Hirschman, of Time Out From Testing, and I gave a 3 minute puppet show at the Panel for Education Puppets (or the PEP) in front of a full house of protesting parents, students and staff from closing and colocated schools. The crowd went wild and a throng of reporters pushed us into the hallway shouting "what is your name, what is your name?" I honestly thought we were getting arrested.
Story: I became active in education advocacy and policy in 2004 when mayoral control replaced community school boards and closed district offices, affecting the ways families could access schools in my neighborhood the LES and East Village. My two children attended public school from pre-k through MS/HS respectively and I saw first hand how our schools became more stratified by race, class and academics. The quality of education was diminished citywide as testing replaced the curriculum, community was removed from decision making and all levers of power were centralized in the bureaucracy.
I have found the vocabulary, tools and kindred spirits at Teachers Unite to begin to realize the kinds of transformations educators, parents and youth need to make in our school communities.Teachers Unite models thoughtful, accountable organizing, leadership, training, strategic alliances and collective actions, TU's focus on collaboration, democracy, membership-driven social justice and human rights issue- base campaigns and actions offer support for creating, together, the schools our city deserves.
Fun fact: I can affect technology in ways that have yet to be resolved by some of the best geeks known in the business.
Story: I teach because I care passionately about giving all young people the opportunities and skills to speak out and take action for the betterment of their lives, community, and the world. I am also passionate about helping adults gain capacity in building relationships with youth. For these reasons, I became involved with Teachers Unite. Initially, I sought TU's help in bringing restorative justice practices to my school. After learning more about the school to prison pipeline and the work TU does in advocating for dignity and democracy in NYC public schools, I became an active member. Through my involvement with TU, I have met other educators committed to ending “zero tolerance" punitive reactions to wrongs committed by young people we are supposed to nurture and educate. Currently, I represent Teachers Unite on the School Safety Working Group of the Mayoral School Climate & Discipline Leadership Team. In this capacity, I aim to push forward TU's work in returning school safety matters to the jurisdiction of the Department of Education and away from the New York City Police Department, except for in the extreme situations. I want to be a member of the Board of Teachers Unite because our philosophy and political views are aligned. Humanity and democracy must dictate the way we interact with and educate our youth.
Elana "E.M." Eisen-Markowitz
(E.M.'s story can be found in the list of Organizing Council members found below)
Sally Lee, Executive Director
(Sally's story can be found in the staff bios above)
Fun fact: I’m the Wu Tang Clan’s #1 fan.
Story: I first started Youth Organizing in New Haven, CT while working for a youth media organization called Youth Rights Media. While working at YRM on a campaign to close a youth prison, I was first exposed to the realities of the School To Prison Pipeline and the impact it had on not only the young people caught up in the juvenile justice system, but the community as a whole. Working with young people became a passion of mine that continues to drive my work today. After being moved to an all white suburb of CT for high school, my understanding of society and my role in it transformed forever. I chose to dedicate my life to organizing young people for Social Justice and revolution as did the many young people I had read about throughout history.
The current neo-liberal assault on public education has not only pitted students vs teachers, but it’s impact will have negative affects on communities of color for generations to come. Teachers Unite was the first organization I had seen that was truly committed to working to restore the relationship between teachers/schools and communities in a real and authentic way with the sole goal of fighting together for the schools both students and teachers deserve. I make time for TU because these teachers let their actions speak for themselves. As a director of a youth organization it has been a transforming experience being able to work with teachers who are unafraid to not only fight for their students, for their colleagues, and for the communities they work in, but to do so by following the lead of those very same students and community members. Ultimately I am committed to helping TU transform not only the United Federation of Teachers, but to serve as a model for all teachers unions around the country.
Free The Land!
Fun Facts: I once touched an elephant's tongue. If you tell me a song from the 1990s, I can tell you the year it came out. I still have a blankie.
Story: Disillusioned by the data-driven hostile corporate takeover of public education, I left teaching in 2013. Teaching was my heart and soul, but I was caught between a rock and a hard place--I didn't see how I could do the job I loved under the constraints of "education reform" and maintain my sanity. I wanted to build relationships, not bubble scantrons. I wanted to add value, not crack under the pressure of Value Added Assessment.
When I moved to New York City from Los Angeles, I wondered how I could continue to be involved in the world of education, a world I feel passionate about and devoted to, but stay true to my social justice principles. The answer was simple: I had to find a community. When I found Teachers Unite, I knew I had found "my people." I was immediately impressed with the philosophical foundations and egalitarian nature of the organization. TU believes in the collective power of a community, sharing skills and pooling knowledge. Teachers Unite believes that the voice of all stakeholders is essential to enact meaningful change. In a time where teachers are being disparaged by politicians and the mainstream media, Teachers Unite believes in teachers and helps build their capacity to radically shift the culture of their school toward fairness.
For me, teaching often felt like an isolating and exhausting profession. There never seemed to be enough hours in the day to do all that was required of me, plus all of the "aboves and beyonds," plus take care of myself, plus connect with like-minded colleagues. The times I felt the most satisfied with teaching were when I was able to be part of larger educational communities with radical missions that were in line with my own. These communities inspired me and drove me toward growth. I owed it to myself to recharge my batteries.
Fun Fact: The DJ formally known as Tony Tantrum, who was formerly known as DJ Big Tone.
Story: I became an education activist because the opportunity for a quality education should not be determined by my address nor my personal identification. The public educational opportunities in the South Bronx should be just as abundant as they are in Riverdale. What drives me is the fact that access to a high-quality education, like the one I received, usually requires a significant commute for the children of our City’s poorest, yet resilient, communities. It is the very practitioners themselves—our dedicated and experienced teachers—that must lead the effort to more equitable public education reform. They are the experts.
Teachers Unite's Organizing Council is made-up of UFT (AFT Local 2) members who make decisions about Teachers Unite's strategy and work, determine and evaluate Teachers Unite staff goals and outcomes, and work to build power of the organization. The Council ensures that all activities model the form of teachers union they want to belong to. Find out more about Teachers Unite membership here.
José Alfaro, LCSW
Fun Fact: Exercise is my form of meditation
Story: I considered becoming a teacher in 1970, when I graduated from college, but my conflict with the traditional ed department at my college and the anti-child conversation I found in the staff cafeteria where I did my student teaching dissuaded me from teaching. In contrast I ended up working as a youth organizer for United Bronx Parents, one of the key organizations in NYC working for community empowerment in the schools. There, one of my responsibilities was advocating for students and their families in the schools.
In the mid 80’s my son began attending the progressive schools in east Harlem and I eventually began teaching at the high school, Central Park East Secondary School. Teaching was great, but it also prevented me from continuing my community organizing, so when I was asked to return to my role as a social worker and help develop Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom H.S. in the Bx. I jumped at the opportunity. Little did I realize that the needs of the students meant that my position presented many challenges, but I was emotionally hooked and today, even though I’ve retired I continue to work at FLH part time seeking to develop the use of restorative practices at the school as well as in other schools.
Since I became an activist in the late 60’s I’ve always stressed the importance of working collectively in an organization with people from whom I can learn and build with. I’ve been involved with different education organizations throughout the years, but with TU I’ve had an opportunity to combine my training as an education advocate with my training as a therapist through the work we do around Restorative Practices.
My vision for public education is that schools become significant learning centers that address the multiple needs of the community. This means deepening critical thinking skills, using authentic assessment in lieu of standardized tests, provide a rich variety of ways to explore intellectual, artistic and physical interests, make available culturally relevant health and mental health services, and become centers of youth and community empowerment.
Fun fact: One time in college I wrote a paper about farming peasants in Latin America, but I accidentally wrote the word pheasant throughout the entire 10 page essay. The professor eventually became my advisor, but to say the least, it was a foul start.
Story: I was successful both academically and socially, and thus, had my identity as a student, and person, positively affirmed. My sister had an altogether different educational experience, being labeled "special education" within her first year of school. In my family, there were no negative connotations associated with special education. I was me, and had my own strengths and challenges, and my sister was my sister, with her strengths and challenges. However, the farther along in school we both got, the more our experiences deviated, with hers becoming more and more steeped in struggle and disempowerment. She was charged with less autonomy, control and power within a classroom space due to her label "special education."
As an elementary school teacher, I often hear colleagues frame discipline issues around the good of the group, "should the needs of one or two students take precedence over the needs of the whole group?" as a means to rationalize the push out of students who present challenging behaviors. This rationale angers me, and prompts a response, "why are the needs, and thus identities, of every student not significant?" Seeking out instructional practices that counteract this mindset led me to explore Restorative Justice and Teachers Unite. Both have given me the vocabulary and knowledge to respond to these situations in a manner that reflects my own personal beliefs about education and the purpose of schools.
I love engaging with my students, hearing about their lives, their ideas, and often repeating their hilarious stories to anyone who will listen. Teachers Unite has become an important space for me to interact with other educators who challenge, support, guide, and share similar values and beliefs about schools and student experiences. As a new teacher, the people that I interact with through Teachers Unite are an important resource for guiding my access to curriculum, instructional practices, and logistical realities of working in schools.
Fun fact: Tyler loves old school Stephen King novels; once upon a time she wanted to be a real-life Clarice Starling.
Story: I absolutely love working with young people each day. While it is an incredibly tough job, I think it is by far the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Quite simply, young people are awesome.
I’m a native New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn. I attended NYC public schools, K-12 so it was very early that I was made aware of the inequities that existed within the public education system in New York City. Growing up in my Crown Heights neighborhood – there were schools on every block; however, I had to travel over an hour each way to get to school every year for my entire academic career. The travel granted me the opportunity to receive a quality, well-rounded education, supported by teachers in a school community that were rooting for my success. While I was thankful for that good fortune at the time, I was infuriated by the fact that that every kid in my neighborhood didn’t have the same chance.
It was then that I realized that the only way to make a change was to get involved, which is why I chose to join the New York City Teaching Fellows - teaching mathematics at a small school in Brooklyn, NY.
The world can prove to be a very cold place; schools should be a safe zone where our kids can find comfort and support. Each day I go to work I try to be my kids’ champion, a supporter and advocate for their healthy development. Fighting to create a positive environment where children can learn and flourish is incredibly important to me. For that reason, I am proud to be a member of TU because they’ve given me a home! It feels great to work with people who are devoted to the mission of advocating for the healthy social-emotional and academic development of our children. If we don’t fight for them, then what happens to our future?
Fun fact: Loves 90s girls bands. Makes a mean fig and caraway seed jam.
Story: I fell into teaching. I wanted a career where I could work with young people, build powerful relationships, and apply my beliefs in educational equity and social justice. I had a vision of creating environments where young people could feel powerful, intellectual, creative and like agents of transformation. Teachers Unite opened a space where I could grapple with this vision and the reality of working in NYC public schools. Teachers Unite allows me to discuss the trying realities of working as an interventionist in a New York City public school: the daily lack of institutional support, the overwhelming numbers of students and responsibilities, the depth of complexity around community support and student needs, the infrequent moments of feeling like my work is intellectual, serious, and irreplaceable, the discomfort of “reform,” and the need to have an outlet to contextualize these struggles. Teachers Unite helps me to make intentional, thoughtful and powerful moves for these realities to shift for me and for the communities I work in. The idea that being a teacher can be one of the many roles that I play in education what I feel keeps me from burning out. Teachers Unite helps me to think through how to critically, responsibly, and sustainably play these roles- a teacher, a facilitator, a theorist, and an agent of political change. I feel constantly curious with and responsible to the people who commit themselves to the work of Teacher Unite and feel grateful for their commitment that transforms the way I imagine myself and the work that we do together.
Fun fact: I once dislocated my arm during a dance battle.
Story: In the fall of 2009 I began what I thought would be my journey to becoming a professor of literary studies in academia, but within months I was disillusioned with my work. Up until then, I believed that analyzing literature revealed secrets about our society that we were unwilling to face and that this analysis could then be shared to grow movements and inspire activism. That didn’t seem to be what was happening in my classes. Instead, it was only a small group of us sharing our ideas behind closed doors and then hoping to publish our ideas so that other individuals could read these articles in their own classes and discuss. Where was the movement? Where was the energy? I survived graduate school and soon realized that the only thing I really enjoyed about graduate school was teaching, so I became a teacher.
I thought teaching would be easy work. I was wrong. I assumed that after I had a strong foundation in teaching things like decoding, main idea, numeracy, and problem solving skills I’d be set and so would my students. But once I got the hang of those things, the real questions started coming up. Why does this stuff really matter? It was at that moment that I realized teaching was more than a series of skills and information I would pour into the receptacles of my students’ minds. Good teaching should answer as many questions as it sparks. And so along with that change in my own pedagogy came a huge change in my class community: my students started asking questions, lots of questions, tough ones, which I didn’t know the answers to. These questions weren’t just about the work; they were bigger questions about fairness, identity, and community. We engaged in those conversations, but always with a teacher at the front of the room dictating how the discourse would flow. It just didn’t seem right.
At about that time I started reading about restorative justice and community circles. I remember reading a YA novel titled Touching Spirit Bear about a teenage boy who had committed a violent crime against a classmate. In order to avoid jail time, he reluctantly agreed to participate in a community circle that would determine how he could repair the harm that was done to the community as a result of his actions. This whole concept was far-fetched, yet totally logical. Within days of finishing the novel, I remember searching for articles and asking professors in my education program about RJ, but no one really knew how to help me find the answers I was looking for. I wanted to know if this was a real thing and how I could connect this work to the work I was trying to do in my classroom every day. How could the conversations about fairness, identity, and community be more restorative and authentic?
Fortunately, with the help of a colleague, I was connected to Teachers Unite that spring. Teachers Unite was a space that welcomed my curiosity and supported me as I tried to build a class community that had sharing experiences and stories at the center. Within a few days of meeting the members of Teachers Unite, fellow educators came to my school and facilitated a workshop on the power of building community with young people through circles. I remember sitting in that circle with my fellow teachers listening to stories about them that I had never heard and learning things about them that after three years of working side by side I still didn’t know. The following week, my co-teacher and I facilitated our first circle and the practice has since become an integral part of our class community. Students in my classroom have shared stories about love, loss, distance, joy, friendship, and family. We have also shared stories about injustice, racism, inequality, immigration, and incarceration. Every time I sit in that circle I remember what started this all- questions. Those same questions have found a safe space to be explored and unpacked and even answered sometimes. In that circle, we are a family seeking to support each other and share love.
Teachers Unite brought this reality to my classroom and now as a member I am able to be part of a growing community of educators committed to transforming schools. Remember those educators that facilitated the workshop that changed our community culture? Now, I get to be one of those people! Our classrooms and even our schools can feel so insular sometimes, but Teachers Unite reminds me that there is a growing network of educators that share these experiences with me.
Elana Eisen-Markowitz / E.M.
Fun fact: E.M. was a super sleuth crewmember on the D.C.-based, nationally broadcast, science adventure radio program called the Kinetic City Super Crew (KCSC) in the mid 1990s. Perhaps you recognize her voice? KCSC is now an interactive education website. Read more here.
Story: School has always been a place where I am both most and least comfortable, and my experiences with schooling are what have shaped me most. I attended a number of very different public schools in and around a shifting Washington, D.C. in the 1980s and 90s. My days as a high school student in particular meant navigating the hallways and classrooms of an enormous public school in urban rim D.C., sometimes feeling like the best version of myself and too often feeling unrecognized, powerless and even unsafe. As a privileged, White, middle class, queer kid of college-educated parents in a very diverse and divided high school, my experiences were so different from day to day, hallway to hallway, class to class, activity to activity, that I consciously felt these experiences shaping who I was becoming and how I was learning to interact with various people and institutions. In high school, I learned both explicitly and implicitly about power and privilege, and how to make choices within oppressive systems. I knew even then that I wanted to be involved in this kind of learning and choice-making with high schoolers into the future – and hopefully with more consistent and thoughtful support than I experienced in my own schools.
For better or worse, schools are often the places where people learn how to be. I am a high school teacher to pursue this goal of supportive, caring and rigorous schools that teach young people to be the best versions of themselves, through understanding the people and institutions around them. Just as I became who I am by learning to navigate high school, I want to be a part of young people shaping their worlds and their selves in this formative time – whether or not their contexts and/or choices are the same as mine.
Now, as a high school teacher in my 8th year, I know that in order to be involved in this shaping and guiding responsibly, I absolutely cannot and should not do it alone. Through Teachers Unite, I am working with other educators to create spaces that can help me be the best version of myself and give me the support to work with others do the same – whether or not their contexts and/or choices are the same as mine. Teachers Unite helps me practically and philosophically connect the work I try to do in my classroom and school with larger movements for educational justice, and T.U. has shown me that when educators listen to and collaborate with other educators, with parents, and with our students, we will all have more energy and capacity to be effective at doing this difficult and necessary work.
Fun fact: I love music - Classic Country (1950s – 1980s), Classic Jazz (1940s – 1970s), Classic Rock (mid ‘50s – early ‘70s) and of course, my main man, Van – Beethoven, that is.
Story: Well, I never planned on being a teacher, it just hit me, in the form of the Vietnam War and the draft that would snatch us boys after high school or college. Not being a conscientious objector, nor wanting to move to Canada or jail or go to med, dental, law school or work in a defense plant, my only out was the classroom. So, I hurriedly took ed credits in my last term of Bklyn College and over the summer of '68 and joined the ranks on Sept 6, 1968. I had started an education career which has spanned most of the last 45 years and has seen me involved, happily, in most of the progressive/radical initiatives of these years.
From the struggle for Black and Puerto Rican community control of schools in the late '60s to the alternative school movement of the '60s and '70s, to the original small schools movement of the '80s and '90s led by Debbie Meier and Ted Sizer, (before it was corrupted by the Bloomberg/Klein 'franchising' of our movement in 2001), to the fight to keep the 'Regents free' 5 year waiver that Consortium Schools were granted in 1995, I've been there and participated actively, even taking leadership at times, in these struggles. At the same time, I was a delegate to the
UFT's Delegate Assembly for 10 years and a Chapter Chair for 5.
Right now, I'm focusing my energy on moving the city's discipline policies from taking a Zero Tolerance approach to behavior infractions to one which bases itself in building each school into being a caring community and using restorative approaches. I believe that this 'sea change' will help us disrupt the School to Prison Pipeline. This is the reason that I've joined Teachers Unite. I've seen too many poor, Black and Latin teens drop out/be pushed out of schools and into the jails over the years. The increasing demonization of Black and Latin@ youth throughout our country and in particular in NYC, since the 1989 frame up of the Central Park 5, has led to the schools being semi militarized and zero tolerance policies being adopted as the way to handle "anti - social" (rebellious?!) behavior.
Thank goodness there's a growing coalition across the country which is reversing this trend and moving schools and school districts to transform their buildings from being alienating institutions to caring communities where kids and adults can grow together academically and emotionally. Through participation in the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC), I get to do this work as a Teachers Unite member.
Fun Fact:At the age of 18, I lived in Centerville, UT. That year was also an election year. While paying a parking ticket, I asked the clerk how to file for office. She showed me a half sheet of paper. I completed it, and ran for mayor of Centerville, UT. I received 7.4 percent of the vote that year. It was my first, and probably last, foray into the world of electoral politics.
Story: When I was a child, my father was very ill. Much of this hospitalization took place during my middle school years. It radically changed the way I saw the world. I began to understand at a young age the importance of social services. One of the services that saved me was my free public school education. Health issues can create social, economic, and emotional chaos for a family, and as this swirled around me, I always knew that I could walk to my neighborhood school and get the support I needed from my teachers and my school. As young as 6th grade, I began working on the school newspaper wherein I stayed at school until as late as 6 or 8 pm helping to make sure that the paper was perfect. This continued into my senior year of high school. It was not rare for me to spend an entire Saturday (and possibly Sunday) preparing for a mock trial case or researching a debate resolution.
I became a teacher because I knew first hand that some young people need to have a safe space - like school - to fully develop. Due to budget cuts, closing schools, charter co-locations, and police presence in schools, many NYC schools are hard pressed to be safe spaces. And, now as a teacher in NYC, I recognize the racist and unequal distribution of services. The schools that face the most struggles are often schools with predominantly Black and Latino students with disabilities.
I am a member of Teachers Unite because we recognize this inequality and through the Dignity in Schools Campaign, we fight in coalition with young people and their families at multiple levels. We seek to create caring and safe schools for young people.
Fun fact: I worked in Magnolia Bakery in college icing cupcakes.
Story: I decided to become a teacher after reading George Orwell’s 1984. Reading about a society that teaches its young people that thought is a crime was so powerful to me. It was most influential not only in inspiring me to join this meaningful profession, but also in pushing me to understand that a teacher’s job is not to instruct, but to guide and to encourage students to think. It is so important to me to be an educator that empowers her students to be critical of their world and to be active participants in changing it in the way that they see fit. Learning about restorative justice was an eye opening experience in this regard.
I found that circle practices were a concrete way to teach students to reflect on their lives and to understand the impact that they can have on others and their communities. I am constantly reminded in watching my students that restorative justice transforms people into agents of change because it teaches them to explore right and wrong in a way that they own what they believe is right, so they resolve conflict in a peaceful, productive manner. In pushing students to be critical, it also moves them to grapple with and explore issues of race, gender, sexuality, inequality, abuse, bullying, etc. as it relates to their lives. A teacher’s work is certainly challenging, but the students become my momentum. It is so invigorating to see young people truly come alive when their experiences create the context for studying the most difficult problems in our society and how we can begin to solve them.
I am a member of Teachers Unite because it recognizes the need to give young people a voice through restorative practices; it moves them to recognize and fight the injustices in the education system, and to appreciate the power that education can have over their lives. Although Teachers Unite is a coalition of teachers, it brings the ideas and the power of youth to the foreground so that we are working and fighting these injustices together.
Fun fact: In 1999 I lived in Prague in the Czech Republic for a year and taught English as a second language. It was a transformative, life changing experience that allowed me to travel all around Europe and expand my mind.
Story: I remember saying that I wanted to be a teacher when I was as young as seven years old. I have always had a love for learning, and I enjoyed school from kindergarten all the way through graduate school. I started off my career as an educator teaching Special Education at a middle school in Atlanta Georgia.
While earning my masters degree in Health and Kinesiology, I became passionate and active around health, wellness, and social-emotional learning in schools. In 2004 I moved to NYC and got a job as a health and physical education teacher at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School and organized to bring health and wellness to the culture of the community. Last year we became the first high school in NYC to win the gold medal for healthy schools from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. This recognition brought Michelle Obama to our school to celebrate the wellness culture in our community.
For the last three years I have been the dean at West Side High School. Although I am the dean, I prefer to go by the title of Peace Keeper. Early on I made a decision to change the culture at West Side and use a Restorative Justice approach to discipline instead of suspending kids and keeping them out of class when they make mistakes or get into conflicts. Restorative Justice practices teach students how to manage emotions and conflicts in a constructive way. They empower students and teach them social and emotional skills that will help them for the rest of their lives.
I learned about Teachers Unite when I attended one of their summer trainings around Restorative Justice. I realized that in order to organize my staff and implement Restorative Justice throughout the entire community at West Side I was going to need support. I quickly found that support in Teachers Unite. Becoming a member of Teachers Unite connected me to like-minded educators working towards social justice and ending the school to prison pipeline. It also allows me to connect the work I do in my school with larger movements for educational justice.
Our work around Restorative Justice is paying off. We have fewer suspensions, and our school climate and culture is more peaceful. We have a set of community values, a school wide circle practice in advisory, and an RJ committee. We use mediations and circle practice to solve conflicts and repair harm. When a student has an issue, talking to a social worker has become the norm.
All of these positive changes at West Side would not be possible without the support of Teachers Unite. I invite anyone who is interested in Restorative Justice and making positive changes in their classroom, their school, and on a larger scale to join Teachers Unite. You will find the community support and resources you need to do this difficult, necessary, and transformative work.
Fun Fact: Kate once had a pet monkey while she was teaching abroad. She loved him. A lot.
Story: I remember being excited about learning in elementary school. I loved my classes and my teachers – school was fun and engaging. By the time I got to high school, I was fairly miserable. It wasn’t that I was doing poorly academically or struggled to make friends, but rather I didn’t understand why I should sit in a classroom to get lectured, take tests, and get in trouble for challenging the offensive statements made by my peers. I decided to get my G.E.D. in order to go to college instead of returning to high school for my final year. School seemed limiting and useless, and I thought college could be an escape. I certainly didn’t plan on becoming a high school teacher.
When I got to Antioch College, I met young folks who could dissect Marx, protest the IMF, and read books on the intersections of race, class, and gender. I was inspired by what school could offer me, and I was able to begin to process how theory could be applied to practice. I realized that education, even high school, could be about naming the world, learning about yourself, and critical thinking. I began using my documentary production skills to develop and implement storytelling classes at a D75 school nearby. The more interested I became in educational theory the more I noticed traditional paradigms negatively playing out in my students’ lives. I was told that my special education students couldn’t handle leaving the school building, couldn’t participate in class discussions, and couldn’t understand complex materials. Each time I challenged the administration about the suspension of one of my students for minor insubordination, I felt isolated and frustrated. When I moved back east to NYC and started teaching high school, my pedagogical and political beliefs seemed once again to be in direct contrast to that of my administrations’. When my students would get arrested in school for minor “discipline issues”, I would cry and focus on my classroom, hoping to build community and restore some of the damaging affects of the larger school building on my own. Now, in my sixth year teaching in NYC, I am learning that having a community of allies and colleagues to push my practice/principles around restorative justice is essential. Because of the support I get at Teachers Unite and the ideas shared, I am able to be a better teacher. Through Teachers Unite I am reminded that my work in the classroom is directly linked to my work outside the classroom, and ultimately, that my students and I are in this struggle together to make school more relevant and just.