Grassroots efforts take center stage

BEAN Listening Tour English teacher Jane McEvoy, left, guidance counselor Daniel Korte and librarian Amy Consolati were among the Lee educators who participated in the BEAN listening tour.

"We have something like a vortex coming down — federal, state, DESE, administrators — funneling down,” said Lanesborough Elementary School teacher Anna Mello, making a gesture with her hands to show how policy descends on classroom educators from above.

“Really, it needs to come from the bottom up,” Mello continued. “Those roots, the big things, need to come from the bottom and push up to support that plant to grow.”

The “strategic intent” of the MTA’s Strategic Action Plan expresses a similar sentiment, calling for more input on education policy and practice to come from the ground up. Where changes are in a school district’s control, members should identify which changes are needed and advocate for them through their local associations. If members want changes at the state level, they should work through the MTA governance structure to advocate for them statewide.

In Berkshire County, local leaders are taking this philosophy to heart through a “listening tour” that they hope will lead to organizing for change.

Plans are also being developed to bring deeper listening to other parts of the state, either through similar tours or by other methods developed regionally.

Meanwhile, educators in the Berkshires aren’t stopping with listening. They are getting ready to move their campaign to another level.

MTA Board member Ginger Armstrong and local association leaders have formed the Berkshire Educator Action Network — BEAN — to develop and implement the program. With help from MTA field representatives in the area, BEAN members have been holding face-to-face conversations, either individually or in small groups, throughout the county.

Some of those discussions were videotaped by the MTA Communications Division staff, resulting in a “Berkshire Listening Tour” video that is being shown at other meetings to kick off discussions based on several open-ended questions:

  • What do you most like about your job?
  • What needs do your students bring to school?
  • What, if any, barriers exist to your meeting those needs, and what would you change at the federal, state, district or school level?

Information gathered in the discussions has been reinforced through member surveys. As MTA Today went to press, approximately 250 of the 1,550 teachers in Berkshire County had participated through a survey, an in-person meeting or both.

“BEAN leaders are to be congratulated for taking the initiative,” said MTA President Paul Toner. “This is the way the MTA’s decision-making structure is supposed to work. Presidents need to find out what their members are thinking and then convey those ideas and principles to their representatives on the MTA Board of Directors. The Board then votes on major MTA policies and positions, as do members directly if they participate in our Annual Meeting of Delegates.”

Toner said that the MTA has held leadership trainings and sponsored organizing institutes to improve member engagement. The MTA has urged Board members and local presidents to stay in closer touch with one another to find out members’ views on issues. Most recently, MTA leaders have been seeking member input on the rollout of PARCC assessments.

“Our success as an organization depends on regular and meaningful two-way conversations,” Toner said. “That is why we hold multiple presidents’ meetings each year in every region and two all presidents’ meetings a year.”

Members taking part in the BEAN listening tour raised a variety of issues, some specific to their districts and others related to state and federal policies. Certain themes emerged in virtually all of the locals, including a lack of time to teach because educators are so busy implementing new initiatives and a belief that too much emphasis on standardized tests is interfering with educating the whole child.

“It’s amazing how many of your members come out when you’re talking to them,” said Armstrong. “They want somebody to hear them. They want to know that you’re listening. As a member of the MTA Board, I’m sitting there voting on policy issues. But unless I’ve talked to my presidents and they’ve talked to their members, then I’m just making it up.”

Brendan Sheran, president of the United Educators of Pittsfield, agreed. Speaking at a meeting of Berkshire County presidents in December, Sheran said, “One of our members’ biggest complaints is that people never ask them what they think about how things should be. This listening tour has given us an opportunity to do that. I’m a new president this year, so this is not only BEAN’s opportunity but also my opportunity to hear from people right out of the gate.”

‘We need to reach out to the public and share our thoughts about what inspires students to become lifelong learners.’
— Board member
Ginger Armstrong

Members taking part in the tour said they appreciated the chance to speak their minds. Lisa Messina, a second-grade teacher at Lanesborough Elementary School, said, “These are things I think about all the time, so I’m glad to have the opportunity to say something and maybe it will make an impact somewhere.”

Christina Duval, a physical education teacher and president of the Clarksburg Teachers Association, said that her members had a positive response to the listening tour video, which was played at a meeting on Jan. 28.

“Everybody agreed with everything that people were saying in the video,” Duval said. “It made our members feel good because they were feeling, ‘Oh, we thought we were the only ones who felt this way.’ It’s not just us. Everybody is going through this.”

Duval said that having these conversations will help participants grapple with the issues locally and work more effectively with other leaders in the region.

Armstrong said her goal is to hear from 100 percent of the members in the Berkshires.

She and other BEAN members not only want to hear about problems; they also want to work with members and administrators to develop solutions and organize for change. Future steps for BEAN include meeting with superintendents in Berkshire County to determine which issues can be dealt with locally, then working to fix them.

Another goal is to share their views with parents.

“We need to reach out to the public and share our thoughts about what inspires students to become lifelong learners,” Armstrong said. “Much of the student’s day is out of the control of the classroom teacher.”

Members also want to publicize positive stories about public schools, educators and education unions.

“The MTA, our unions and our locals are not all about the trouble,” said Armstrong. “We’re there to educate the kids.

“If I want to know what teachers think, then I’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to get out there,” Armstrong added, gesturing to other local presidents who met about the listening tour in December. “We’ve got to all come together. We are it.”

Barbara Manley, vice president of the North Adams Teachers Association, added, “One of the most important things we try to get through to our teachers is that MTA is them.”

Berkshire Listening Tour

This story was featured in the MTA Today winter issue

MTA Today Winter 2014

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