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A More Perfect Union

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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 Dade County, Fla., 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 from parents' night. But this year, she strides around her classroom at Silver Bluff Elementary School with the confidence of a seasoned professional. What's made the difference? Professional 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 help, information, and activities specifically for members under age 30.

By creating the group for young teachers, the UTD hopes to get as much as it gives.

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 the unions attractive and strong are, in many places, a thing of the past. Few beginning teachers share the older generation's pride in those victories or feel gratitude toward the organizations that won them. If teachers' unions are to survive and thrive, 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,'' says Pat Tornillo Jr., executive vice president of the UTD and the driving force behind the creation of the Young Educators Caucus.

The Miami-area union stumbled on the idea for the educators' caucus last year after a state teachers' union survey showed membership levels lowest among younger teachers. The survey prompted the 18,000-member union to take a different approach at the district's new-teacher orientation. Union organizers staffed their booth with young members, showed a video program about the union, and emphasized professional development as one of the UTD's strong points. The response was overwhelming: 80 percent of new teachers signed up last year, double the 40 percent who joined the year before.

The union then surveyed its approximately 4,800 members who were under 30 and asked them what kind of group would interest them most. A caucus for young teachers was the most popular response. This past March, the union assembled a handful of its young members to discuss issues important to new teachers. They drafted bylaws and elected officers. The Young Educators Caucus was born.

The success of the group's first events--seminars on money management and graduate degrees--cemented the union's support, says Jose Arenas, president of the 80-member caucus. Arenas and each of the caucus' other three officers receive two days per month away from the classroom, courtesy of the union, to work on caucus-related proj-ects. Two UTD staff members serve as liaisons.

The group now meets once a month at a restaurant in Coconut Grove--a locale young teachers say is more appealing than the UTD building downtown. In the works are seminars on such topics as designing lesson plans, communicating with parents, and avoiding burnout. The group also plans to introduce a "buddy system'' that will pair up new teachers with other young experienced union members, who will provide advice and mentoring.

Arenas 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, the caucus president admits that he only signed on after he became concerned about some questionable practices by administrators.

The 33-year-old teacher says his strategy for recruiting new members has been to focus on the positive aspects of the union--principally 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,' '' he says.

Arenas notes that there is a perceived generation gap between the old union guard and newer members. Some older members, he concedes, have certain attitudes that turn off younger teachers, such as a staunch loyalty that might lead them to stand by the union no matter what. "That loyalty--the almost blindfolded loyalty,'' Arenas says, "doesn't exist anymore.''

Inelissa Rodriguez, a 29-year-old caucus member who teaches 8th grade at Citrus Grove Middle School, says the generation gap can also result in a communication breakdown between older and younger members. Rookies want active guidance from people who share their own concerns, says Rodriguez, whose mother is a UTD vice president. Their attitude toward older members, Rodriguez says, 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 turn away potential young members, says Rick Kuplinski, head of the Union Leadership Institute at the American Federation of Teachers, the UTD's parent organization. "It doesn't really work to say, 'In 1969 we had a strike, and as a result of that strike we won health insurance,' '' Kuplinski says. "They're going to take that health insurance for granted.''

In some areas, he adds, local unions have become so entrenched that new teachers find them as unapproachable as the district's administration. The AFT gave a nod to those problems recently when it launched a national campaign for high standards and safe schools. [See "Current Events,'' October.] "Many new teachers are not interested in, or don't understand, the traditional collective-bargaining role of the union,'' an AFT background paper stated. "They are, however, looking for the union to take action on many issues that they confront every day in the classroom.''

The group for young teachers in Dade, Kuplinski says, is a notable example of a union reaching out to new members. That outreach, he asserts, 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 the year 2000, leaders share similar concerns. State NEA-affiliated groups are paying close attention to new teachers' interest in professional development, says Marla Robinson, chairwoman of the NEA's advisory committee of student members. Local leaders, Robinson adds, are starting to realize that they need to reach out to young teachers in order to ensure union continuity in the years ahead. "They're starting to embrace that and say, 'Let's make sure that we give them everything they need,' '' she says.

The UTD's Young Educators Caucus launched its 1995-96 seminar series in September with a popular topic--classroom management and discipline. More than 100 teachers showed up to hear John Birk, the union's director of field services, discuss contractual obligations and liabilities regarding classroom discipline.

Afterward, participants took part in training sessions led by local teachers. Roger Miret, a 24-year-old classroom aide who attended the seminar, says that although the best way to learn classroom management is to teach, he found the workshop useful. Miret, who is vice president of the caucus, says he values the union's attempts to reach out to young teachers and hopes the group will soon have at least one member at each of the district's 300 schools.

"It gives you a cushion to lie up against,'' he says. "[It] makes you feel that you're not out there on your own.''

--Jeanne Ponessa

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