In the four years I’ve been writing this series, I’ve profiled a number of teachers, but no teachers union leaders. Given the critical role teachers unions play in shaping the politics, policy, and day-to-day realities of public education in this country, that seemed problematic. So I’m glad to correct it. William Wong is a high school math teacher and the elected president of the San Gabriel Education Association, in San Gabriel, California. He has spoken on education policy and practice issues to statewide and national audiences. A native of Queens, New York, Wong attended New York City Public Schools and earned an engineering degree from Princeton and masters in education from Claremont Graduate University. He lives with his wife and 11-month old daughter.
How did you become a union leader?
I was in my fourth year teaching. I didn’t know a lot about teachers unions other than what’s in newspapers, so I thought I should get involved so that I could learn for myself. A colleague and I decided to jointly become the site reps for our school. Shortly after I became a site rep, we realized that the school board was taking arbitrary disciplinary actions against teachers and administrators, misusing its power.
This all came to a head when they terminated the contract of a popular principal. I got more involved and began acting as an organizer with staff and parents. We united together to address this problem, and we eventually reached our goals after a very difficult period. After that people encouraged me to run for union president. One of the reasons I remain engaged in the union today is that I’ve seen the abuses unions were created to prevent.
How did you become an educator?
I grew up in an urban environment in Queens, New York City--in one of the most diverse zip codes in the United States. I went to Stuyvesant High School and then to Princeton, and became a civil engineer. I’d always wanted to be a teacher, but felt like there was an expectation that I needed to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. I needed to “cash in” on my degree, and becoming a teacher would be a poor choice. After 5 years as a general contractor I reevaluated my career. I went to Claremont Graduate University and earned my master’s degree through a teacher internship preparation program to become a teacher. I’m now in my seventh year teaching high school math in San Gabriel.
How has your experience as a teacher changed your perspectives?
Before I became a teacher, I had this view of public education as horrendous and out-of-control. I believe a lot of people think that, based on what we read in newspaper articles that just focus on the bad.
My first year teaching was so humbling. I lost a lot of weight from the stress and the work hours, and I teach at a low- to moderate-income school that some might argue is not as challenging to teach in compared to other communities. I realized that it’s not as easy as I thought. I also saw that my coworkers were incredibly dedicated people doing their best for kids. But I also saw so much that could improve.
A couple of years ago, I worked for Teach for America in the summer as a corps member adviser. I helped train 12 corps members who were preparing for their first year of teaching. I came back the following summer and worked as the director of data management for the summer institute. I saw a very different approach to teacher preparation than what I’d experienced in my graduate school program. They were two very different approaches to teacher preparation, but they both had their merits. My graduate school didn’t emphasize the specific instructional techniques that increase test scores as much as the way Teach for America did for the corps members, but it did teach me to reflect on things that helped me think about the whole student, and seeing what place I had in our society to bring about equity.
Too often in education, we jump to say “this side is right, and this side is wrong,” but it’s usually more complicated than that. As a union president I see why people are frustrated with the traditional system. But I don’t think a wholesale free-market approach is the solution either. I’ve seen really good schools, teachers, and principals in the traditional system, and I know there are really good charters, too. I read people from across the spectrum--Michelle Rhee to Diane Ravitch--and I make my own decisions informed from my varied experiences.
What role should do you think unions should play in education?
They should be the leaders of the craft. I think unions can be advocates for students and also advocates for working conditions, salaries, and benefits for teachers. I believe that unions--not just teachers unions--can play a productive role in supporting fair working conditions and compensation for employees. But when it comes to teachers unions, we should also be the people throwing out ideas for instruction and school improvement. This does happen already, but I think it’s often overlooked. For example, I like what CalTURN does with district-labor collaboration for the benefit of students.
I think about the idea of a guild, something like electricians. I used to work with a lot of electricians when I was a contractor and engineer. If you want to be an electrician, you go through apprenticeships, mentorship. Teaching is a totally different approach. You go to a school, and then it’s your district’s responsibility. I’d like to see the profession play more of an active role. It should be a badge of honor to say, “I’m a unionized teacher, I’ve gone through this.” But that takes resources and a shift in thinking.
How does debate need to change?
Although I understand the need for them, I’m tired of these fights. There are entrenched interests and positions now on all sides.
One thing I’d like to see is more honesty. I’d like our educators to be more honest about things that are in our control that we can improve. Too often when we’re criticized, we dismiss the criticism. But there are legitimate things we could do differently and better. For example, educators in the traditional system seem to adopt new ideas slowly, and we could probably do a better job at accepting change. At the same time, I’d like reformers to be more honest about the side effects of reform. For example, some charter schools that are known for their student performance have very high student attrition and a different student population compared to the local community school. It’s not honest to say “we’re the highest performing,” when a significant percentage of students are leaving your program and the remaining students don’t have as challenging needs.
Assessment is useful and I love data. But I worry that test scores and data play too prominent a role in education today, at the expense of other things that matter, like making sure our students are developing social and leadership skills. We expect a lot from our schools, but test scores have become the ultimate measure to the detriment of schools and students.
Who are some of your role models or people you respect in education?
I’ve loved reading the blog “Gatsby In L.A. - my year of learning about education in Los Angeles.” (gatsbyinla.wordpress.com) The author, Ellie Herman, was a television writer and producer for 20 years (including Desperate Housewives!) before she became a teacher in South L.A. She is a fantastic writer and is observing all sorts of high school classrooms this year and writing about it. She is trying to answer the question “What is great teaching?” and “What is the purpose of public education?” I don’t think our policy leaders have adequately asked these questions. Instead, policy is being enacted first, and then the debate on teachers and public education comes later (think of NCLB). This blog will challenge you and help non-educators understand the work of teaching.
I also like to read the blog “InterACT - a group blog from Accomplished California Teachers: Classroom expertise for better education policy.” (accomplishedcaliforniateachers.wordpress.com) They write thoughtful posts from a place of experience and knowledge.
For education documentary lovers, I’ve enjoyed watching the documentary “Go Public - A Day in the Life of an American School District.” (gopublicproject.org) They had 50 film crews follow 50 individuals - students, parents, volunteers, administrators, faculty and staff - for one day within the Pasadena Unified School District. There is no narration. Instead, the documentary shows the stories of the individuals that work and participate in the schools. The producers, Dawn and James O’keeffe, are parents of students in the school district.
For book readers, I’d recommend “See Me After Class” by Roxanna Elden, which so accurately describes teaching. Note it’s not what’s portrayed in the movies.
The people I’ve listed all have a deep understanding of schools and the challenges of teaching. They don’t seem to me to be defenders of the status quo. I believe these are the kinds of people policy makers should be listening more to.
Tell me more about your school/students/community?
I teach at Gabrielino High School, in San Gabriel, CA. It’s a diverse high school, with the majority of students being either Asian or Hispanic or Latino. More than half the students receive free or reduced lunch. I have had students that range the socioeconomic spectrum. I have had students who had to worry about where they would live from week to week, and then I’ve also had students who could afford extra private tutoring. It’s an incredible community, but we face the same challenges that any diverse urban school faces.
What is one other interesting thing about you?
My wife is supportive with the work that I do. Being a teacher and a union president is not ideal in trying to balance work and life, so I’m thankful to my wife for her support.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.