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Young Teachers In Dade Getting A Helping Hand

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When Yolande Ramsay began teaching 1st grade last year, she nearly made herself sick from stress and nerves. "I was so lost, I felt like a fish out of water," the 25-year-old teacher recalls.

Back then, she could have used more practical guidance--help in designing a lesson plan, for example, or tips on what to expect for parents' night. But this year, she strides around her classroom at Silver Bluff Elementary School with the confidence of a seasoned professional.

Ms. Ramsay says she is glad she found support from the United Teachers of Dade's Young Educators Caucus--one of the first groups in the country created by a local teachers' union to offer activities and information specifically for members under age 30.

The union is glad to have found her, too.

As the membership of teachers' unions across the country ages, many are looking for ways to attract--and keep--young members who can carry the union tradition into the next century.

But the hard-fought battles for decent salaries and benefits that once made teachers' unions strong are, in many places, long past. Union leaders say few beginning teachers share the older generation's pride in those victories or gratitude toward the organizations that won them.

If the unions are to survive, some leaders say, they must branch out from their traditional reliance on success at the bargaining table to serve their members in other ways.

"I believe this is critical to the future, not just of the teachers' movement, but of unions in general," said Pat L. Tornillo Jr., the executive vice president of the UTD and the driving force behind the creation of the Young Educators Caucus.

High Demand

The Miami-area union stumbled on the idea for the group last year after a state teachers' union survey showed membership levels lowest among younger teachers. The survey prompted the 18,000-member union to try a different approach to its annual appearance at the county's new-teacher orientation.

Union organizers staffed their booth with younger members, showed a video program about the union, and emphasized professional development as one of the UTD's strong points.

The response, said Mr. Tornillo, was "the difference between night and day" from the previous year's session: 80 percent of new teachers signed up in 1994, double the 40 percent who joined in 1993.

The union then surveyed its approximately 4,800 members who were under 30. When asked what kind of group would interest them most, a caucus for young teachers drew by far the most responses.

In March of this year, the union assembled a handful of its young members to discuss issues important to new teachers. They drafted bylaws, elected officers--and the Young Educators Caucus was born.

The success of the group's first events that spring--seminars on money management and graduate degrees--cemented the union's support, said Jose Arenas, the caucus' president. Two union staff members serve as liaisons to the caucus, and each of the group's four officers receives two days per month away from the classroom, courtesy of the union, to work on caucus-related projects.

The 80-member caucus meets once a month at a restaurant in Coconut Grove--a locale young teachers say is more appealing than the UTD building downtown. This year, the caucus plans seminars on such topics as designing lesson plans, communicating with parents, and avoiding burnout.

The group also plans a "buddy system" to pair up new teachers with other young union members, who will provide the advice and mentoring that could draw more new teachers like Ms. Ramsay into the union fold.

No 'Blind Loyalty'

The group's president says he was a reluctant convert to unions himself.

Sitting in the trailer that serves as his classroom for emotionally handicapped students at Silver Bluff Elementary School, Mr. Arenas said he only signed on after he became concerned about some questionable practices by other school administrators.

In recruiting new members, the 33-year-old teacher said his strategy has been to focus on the positive aspects of the union--that it's not just for bad teachers who need to be bailed out of trouble.

"I want the main drive to be, 'This is my professional organization, this is where I can grow in my field,"' Mr. Arenas said.

He also tries to overcome an attitude held by older members that turns off some potential new ones. "That loyalty--the almost blindfolded loyalty [of older members]--doesn't exist anymore," Mr. Arenas said.

Inelissa Rodriguez, a 29-year-old caucus member who teaches 8th grade at Citrus Grove Middle School, said she had first-hand knowledge of that generation gap.

Ms. Rodriguez, whose mother is a UTD vice president, said she saw a lack of communication between older members and rookies.

Union Priority

Younger teachers want more active guidance from people who share their own concerns, said Ms. Rodriguez. And their attitude toward older members, she said, is, "Don't tell us what you did. Tell us what you're going to do."

A preoccupation with past triumphs may be one of the main factors that turns away potential young members, said Rick Kuplinski, the head of the Union Leadership Institute at the American Federation of Teachers in Washington.

"It doesn't really work to say, 'In 1969 we had a strike and as a result of that strike we won health insurance,"' Mr. Kuplinski said. "They're going to take that health insurance for granted."

In some areas, he added, local unions have become so entrenched that new teachers might find them as unapproachable as the district's administration.

The aft gave a nod to those problems in the national campaign for high standards and safe schools it launched this fall.

"Many new teachers are not interested in, or don't understand, the traditional collective-bargaining role of the union," the aft said in a background paper released with the campaign. "They are, however, looking for the union to take action on many issues that they confront every day in the classroom." (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

The group for young teachers in Dade, Mr. Kuplinski said, is a notable example of a union reaching out to new members. That outreach, he said, is "a major priority nationwide for the aft."

At the National Education Association, where internal surveys have shown that almost half of current members will be eligible to retire by 2000, leaders share the same concerns.

State nea-affiliated groups are paying close attention to new teachers' interest in professional development, said Marla Robinson, the chairwoman of the nea's Advisory Committee of Student Members.

Local leaders are also starting to realize that they need to reach out to young teachers in order to ensure union continuity in the future, Ms. Robinson added. "They're starting to embrace that and say Á'Lets make sure that we give them everything they need."'

Mr. Arenas said he has received several inquiries about the caucus from unions around the country.

Classroom Tips

The Young Educators Caucus launched its seminar series this school year with a popular topic--classroom management and discipline--at a Miami hotel last month.

More than 100 teachers listened as John Birk, UTD's director of field services, discussed contractual obligations and liabilities regarding classroom discipline. Participants then joined training sessions led by local teachers.

Regina Nunez, a 1st-grade teacher at Meadowlane Elementary School and Dade County's 1995-96 Teacher of the Year, showed slides of creative ideas from her school. One teacher, for example, had converted her entire classroom into a "Raiders of the Lost Ark" set where students stashed their work in leather pouches and earned the right through good behavior to visit a "treasure chest."

Roger Miret, a 24-year-old classroom aide who attended the seminar, said that although the best way to learn classroom management is to teach, he found the sessions useful. Mr. Miret, the vice president of the caucus, said he values the union's attempts to reach out to young teachers.

He hopes the caucus will soon have a member at each of the district's 300 schools, so that the newest teachers know they have access to a support network. "It gives you a cushion to lie up against and make you feel that you're not out there on your own."

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