A Passion for Teaching and a Vision for Change
For this article, New Labor Forum’s “Working-Class Voices” columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed Jia Lee, a special education teacher and United Federation of Teachers (UFT) chapter leader in New York City. She is also a member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a social justice caucus within UFT that advocates for popular control of a school system that reflects the needs, aspirations, and diversity of those who make up its parent and student bodies.
I have worked with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) for about twenty years beginning in 2002, the first year of No Child Left Behind. I started out in District 75, a city-wide district made up of schools that support students with severe cognitive or physical disabilities—those who need assistance with toileting, are nonverbal, who have disabilities that may require a very small class size, and one-to-one support. I really took a passion to it.
Since 2005, I have taught in community schools in mostly Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classrooms. In ICT, the goal is to create classes that are as heterogeneous and integrated as possible. These are classrooms in which 40 percent of the students have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and the rest are students in the general education system. Staff and family come together to create an IEP that will meet the needs of the students. The Federal Law entitling students to these special education services is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It runs the gamut of students who may have a learning disability of some type: speech language issues, emotional disabilities, students who have autism, and what we call “other health impaired.” There are so many students who fall under categories that we cannot necessarily pinpoint clinically, but they exhibit symptoms of some condition that impacts their learning at school.
Mainstream schools sometimes have either the lower- or mid-level students: We try to get rid of that as much as possible so everyone is included in the classroom. Before the pandemic, we were able to do lots of flexible grouping, provide a lot of individualized time. There were routines we had that allowed our students to follow very easily because we were in-person. Our students also received related services: counseling, occupational and physical therapy, and speech language. We were able to schedule times for teachers in those areas to join us in the classroom as well. Teaching inperson, we felt like if something came up, we could address it to support our students with special needs, and the students felt connected. There was a sense of community building; the relationships that are so important in learning.
Special Education in a Pandemic
There’s so much I realize about how important in-person schooling is. We have had conversations about our ICT classes that require a lot of modeling for students who are learning how to read: how to make the sounds with their mouths, showing them physically with word and letter sounds, and how to sound things out. Remote learning means everything is getting typed into Google classroom docs. There is a huge concern that kids are not developing their fine motor skills with writing, which is also connected to occupational therapy and speech language. Their processing of language is different when they are typing vs. writing. In occupational and physical therapy, the therapists are trying to provide services online. Figuring out how to translate that has been really tricky. You need to have the materials: therapeutic balls, bands that go around the seats, or weighted vests. The occupational or physical therapists only have one set of materials in their therapy room. How do you improvise around those things?
Teaching in-person, we felt like if something came up, we could address it to support our students with special needs . . . There was a sense of community building . . .
We are blended. That means parents have the option of in-person or online instruction for their children. School buildings are open. In my class, the majority of students are fully remote. We have about seven students who are in-person. Their families are essential workers. In our memorandum of agreement between the United Federation of Teachers and the DOE, if you are the in-person teacher you are not supposed to be teaching any remote classes during that time. But we don’t have enough staffing. We closed for up to forty-eight hours at times because we have had Covid cases in our building. The back-and-forth has been so disruptive. I cannot be in the room with just two students, and not meet with any of my students who have individualized education plans—IEPs—on two or three days of the week. I just can’t face that. I have had to teach remote students while I’m at school with in-person kids. I know that this is the situation happening in other schools. I teach in an old building with window based ventilation. I crack the windows open just a few inches; heat is fully on, and it’s fifty degrees in the room with two air purifiers that don’t fit the cubic feet they are supposedly for. No one in the DOE is listening about the scheduling or staffing issues. I belong to Movement of Rank & File Educators, which completed a survey about these issues with almost 1,100 respondents. The majority of teachers who responded do not feel supported or feel they do not have the resources needed for in-person or online learning.
Defunding the Infrastructure of Our Schools
We have seen a huge drop in enrollment in our school system. A lot of families have fled the city. After December 2020, the DOE was telling schools how much they are cutting from the school budget or how much money the schools owe back to the DOE. But we are still understaffed, and we still have our students with special needs who are due services. It’s been a process of chipping away over time by defunding the infrastructure of our schools. That’s why we are seeing a lot of building and staffing issues. The way that budget formulas are working across the state reveals that districts with Black and brown students are underfunded compared to primarily white districts. This disparity is a violation of our civil rights.*
One major solution to this disparity is to have the ultra-rich in our state pay their fair share of taxes and change our city’s formula for funding schools. But, it’s just not being done. The Fair Student Funding Formula (FSFF) is a city formula started by former New York City school chancellor Joel Klein, and put in place by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Klein was a guy from Wall Street with no experience in public education. What he was was an expert in developing a lean production model of education. Before the FSFF, school funding was based on the average salary of the staff because we have a contract and a scale where there are incremental raises. That speaks to placing a value on staffing and having educators with experience. The other part of the school budget was operational costs. In that model, the funding was not great, but it was definitely more about supporting the staffing needs for students. We also had elected school boards in New York City. Once we got mayoral control of the schools and the FSFF was introduced, funding became a per-pupil formula. Each student brought in a certain amount of money, and a student with an IEP or who is in an English as a Second Language program gets around 50 percent more than a general education student. This created a system that was based on competition—you needed to have students in order to have the funding.
We need to end bureaucratic paperwork that takes up so much of our time especially as special education teachers.
We cannot make this fight for resources alone. There are not enough related service providers. If you look at contracts for occupational and physical therapists in New York City, they are some of the lowest paid in the nation for their profession. In New York City, they do not receive benefits or qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act. School counselors are really overburdened with caseloads, as are other service providers. It’s a major point of contention because we have so many students with needs that are not being met. Almost all schools have a special education educator because there was a big push to get more integrated classrooms in elementary, middle, and high schools around 2009 to 2011. However, it’s not enough. A major expenditure in New York City for the DOE is legal settlements because so many families sue the school district over lack of special education accommodations and services.
We definitely have partnerships with parent organizations. We let parents know that our related service provider has not been able to meet with their child because of staffing shortages. Once we got our parents involved, it’s been way more powerful. But funding is still a problem.
A Vision for the Future of Education
Much of what students, families, and educators seek are access to resources, outdoor learning, and opportunities to be part of decision-making. To make all this happen, process really matters. We need to end bureaucratic paperwork that takes up so much of our time especially as special education teachers. Our time should be spent on supporting our students—on a Black Lives Matter (BLM)-centered set of values. We need to build on BLM’s thirteen guiding principles for educators: for example, the importance of building relationships at the school so we have trust between educators, students, and families. If we want to support our students, we need to work together against discriminatory policies that affect their families and communities—policies that make it difficult for people to have gainful employment, housing, and access to good food and health care. Then curriculum-wise and pedagogically, how do we teach to the whole child? I think many educators have spent too much time over the past ten to fifteen years, teaching to the standardized test. We have to unlearn that. High stakes standardized testing has created a much more competitive culture in school communities. Children are literally placed on a norm-referenced bell curve so there’s a guarantee of a bottom quartile and top quartile. It’s a false “race to the top” that is at the whim of whoever the test-maker is that year. The consequences of teaching to the test are that nearly all of the already slim resources go to raising test scores, not to holistic, evidence-based, inquiry-based instruction, including arts and physical education. All of that is stripped away in the name of “rigor” and “achievement.”
. . . [T]his curriculum allows us to learn from and remember the work of those who fought for the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws so that we can fight current policies that perpetuate existing institutionalized racism.
Some colleagues and I wrote a Social Studies curriculum called “Justice for All?,” which examines the origin of the United States from three different perspectives: Indigenous people, the Africans who were enslaved and brought over, and the European colonists. We studied the Atlantic triangle slave trade, tracing its effects all the way up until now so students can see why we still have issues of racism and economic injustice. This is the legacy that exists to this day in Make America Great Again (MAGA). The kids are making that connection in the fifth grade. If eight- to ten-year-olds can make those connections, we can develop a very abolitionist curriculum with our students. An abolitionist curriculum allows us to learn from and remember the work of those who fought for the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws so that we can fight current policies that perpetuate existing institutionalized racism.
Strength in Collectivity
When I was at my first school, a principal said to me, “You know I can get two new teachers for the price of that one veteran teacher.” Those were her words to me. She worked really hard to push that veteran teacher out of the school so that she could hire two new teachers. That was one reason I got really involved in organizing. She pushed out a veteran teacher who was the chapter leader. I kind of took her place as leader, and that’s when I discovered a lot of other things.
When I was at my first school, a principal said to me, “You know I can get two new teachers for the price of that one veteran teacher.”
In 2010, I discovered a group called the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), which was a precursor to MORE. At the time, I was teaching a self contained class of fourthand fifth-grade students and was supposed to proctor the state standardized tests. There was an immense amount of pressure to teach to the test. There was a lot of seeing kids crying, pulling out hair, and refusing to take the test. I found the curriculum of teaching to the standardized test to be very immoral. As an educator, I felt like this is unconscionable. This is not why I went into teaching. I was ready to leave the profession. But, through GEM, I found a forum on this very topic—the harm of highstakes testing—and I went. Later I joined MORE, which created a space for us to talk; to be able to say that we did not agree with standardized testing. MORE was also instrumental in educating parents about the history of eugenics and how it relates to standardized testing as well as about the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately affects poor Black and brown communities.
I found the curriculum of teaching to the standardized test to be very immoral. As an educator, I felt like this is unconscionable. This is not why I went into teaching.
In March of last year, staff was reporting cases of Covid-19. It started in the Bronx with many teachers from the Grace Dodge educational campus. At the time, there was not nearly the level of testing we have now. The chancellor’s response was to try and minimize the situation and keep it quiet. But more people were becoming sick, and they reached out to MORE. We started to get organized in a way that showed parents were beginning to see what was happening. That led us to start district-based organizing groups. Community Education Councils (CECs), created in 2002, are made up of elected parents, residents, and one non-voting high school student. There is one CEC for each community school district and their role is to advise on educational policy. CECs started to form a group of parents and teachers called Parents for Responsible Equitable Safe Schools (PRESS) to address the city’s chaotic response to reopening schools in coalition with the Black Lives Matter school network within MORE. We were exhausted trying to figure out how to do our teaching platforms online. We were really concerned before we even went remote about how we were going to shut down the schools if the city was not going to. One of the major achievements that came out of our organizing was to eventually get 800,000 students to go remote. Also, we encouraged our staff members to apply for medical accommodations in their work, including teaching remotely and the federal Covid-19 leave option.
. . . [a] lot of people talking about quitting, but people are pulling through because of our students. . . We are trying to get everyone to remember that our strength is in our collectivity . . .
During the pandemic, MORE created a Reopening Toolkit as we were noticing Covid-19 cases rise in poor Black and brown communities. These are the same communities that have insecure housing and insecure access to healthcare, so what we created was broader than just what is in the school. We had been talking for years about how schools cannot be the only place to fix all of our societal ills. The toolkit includes information on how the spread of Covid-19 is happening and how to organize within your school community.
The mayor and the DOE claim they are providing iPads with WiFi capability in shelters. There were students still not logging on, who did not have a device or reliable access to WiFi. Some kids were using the hotspot off their parents’ phones. There are still families that have not received a device or other access to reliable WiFi. This was one of our demands: Make sure that everybody has the same access.
The situation at this moment is dire. There is definitely a feeling among staff of being disrespected and demoralized. There were a lot of people talking about quitting, but people are pulling through because of our students. There are staff members in our city who are divided. There are people who feel it’s fine to have that abused-victim kind of mentality—“this is our job, this is what we signed up for. The kids need us. Suck it up. We do active shooter drills, so how different is this?” Some people cannot wrap their minds around the fact that things could be different. There are staff that are very resentful of teachers who have taken medical accommodations. We are trying to get everyone to remember that our strength is in our collectivity, even if you are remote while others have to deal with the stress of teaching in-person and potentially bringing Covid home to loved ones or managing crazy staffing situations in the building because there are not enough people. We have talked about how we can support each other. We have to help people get past the abused mentality and remember what we can envision for sensible, safe schools for teaching and learning during this pandemic. We can build that vision together with our families and students and not feed into fear and all of these tactics coming down.
*According to a report issued in 2019 by EdBuild—a non-profit organization focused on school funding—predominately white school districts nationwide receive $23 billion more in state and local funding than those serving primarily students of color.
Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in Labor Studies from The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY, and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 925, and women organizing in the workplace.