The Social Studies Teacher as a Political Activist

On Friday, January 17th  I convinced my wife to accompany me to New Bedford to participate in a rally at City Hall to protest the decision by the school superintendent and the mayor to classify New Bedford High School as a “Turnaround” school. For starters, that was not easy. Lynne (my wife) doesn’t like the cold and standing in the cold for over an hour in the shade as evening came is not high on her list of favorite things to do! But she realized that this was our fight too. We are both retired teachers but we feel connected to all teachers still in the classroom and the can still recognize injustice. A turnaround school is one that has not met benchmarks for improvement or are considered “chronically low performing schools”.  New Bedford fired the “Teacher of the Year” along with the entire high school staff. Teachers are invited to apply for their old jobs but only a maximum of 50% can be retained. Poverty, malnutrition, English-as-a-second-language, violence, broken homes……it doesn’t matter. It’s the teachers’ fault!

The rally included the usual speakers, a past mayor (very popular with the teachers), several city counselors and the president of the New Bedford Education Association. What struck me is that this president, Lou St. John, introduced himself as a “social studies teacher”. Of course! Certainly a disproportionate number of association presidents are or were social studies teachers. Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association is a middle school social studies teacher in Cambridge. I am a Senate District Coordinator for the MTA and I taught social studies/history for 40 years. On my Legislative Political Action Team (LPAT) in Senator Hedlund’s district, ALL of my Political Action Leaders (PALs) are social studies teachers.  More Senate District Coordinators are social studies teachers than any other discipline.

The reason why I bring this all up? We are going through difficult times for teachers. Everywhere we look, someone is taking shots at us, putting more demands on us, changing our certification requirements, how we are evaluated and all this with larger classes, with fewer resources, and led by overwhelmed administrators. We look around to see who should be standing up for us. Who should emerge as our leaders? Look in the mirror! If not us, who? If not the people who really understand history, the labor movement, how a bill becomes a law, the civil rights movement, who?

At the Northeast Regional Conference for the Social Studies (NERC) this spring, I will be presenting a session “The Social Studies Professional as a Political Activist”. Supporting me at this session will be Paul Toner, president of the MTA and Jo Ann Fitzgerald, Grassroots coordinator for the MTA. This will be your chance to see what you can do to stand up for your profession. NERC is held in Sturbridge, MA from April 7-9. My session will be held at 1:30 pm on Tuesday, April 8th. I hope to see you there.

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