Equity & Diversity Opinion

Grassroots Teacher Convention Makes Waves in Oakland

By Anthony Cody — April 22, 2011 8 min read
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Teachers in Oakland have spoken. At the first Oakland Teachers’ Convention, more than 200 teachers - close to ten percent of the teachers in the District, gathered and spent two and a half days in intense dialogue to come up with recommendations for the future success of our schools.

Last October I joined something called the Effective Teaching Task Force, one of more than a dozen task forces formed under our Superintendent, Dr. Tony Smith. Oakland Unified had been under the control of administrators appointed by the State of California following a financial bailout nine years ago. Dr. Smith was our first superintendent after all that time, and he took office in July of 2009.

When the Effective Teaching Task Force was launched by Deputy Superintendent Maria Santos, many of us were a bit suspicious. The convener was a young man named Ash Solar, who had been a TFA intern and taught for three years in Houston, before joining Oakland as an administrator. Some were concerned, because Ash is a part of the Broad Residency program, and recently got a dual masters degree in education and business administration from Stanford University. He seemed to fit the profile of a corporate education reformer, so we were afraid that pay for test scores was on the hidden agenda. But the president of our local union, Betty Olson-Jones, was willing to give him a chance, as were about fifteen teacher volunteers.

We dove in to the process, meeting several times a month, and wrestled with how we might develop our vision. Should we define what effective teaching looks like? How should we engage with our peers across the District? We got a strong message from teachers that they wanted teaching/learning conditions addressed very seriously, so we had to figure out how to tackle that. We did not want to buy into the prevailing message that the problem with our schools is bad teachers, nor that simply making teachers more effective will fix everything. But we saw the door open for a real dialogue about what we can do as teachers and a District to help teachers meet the challenges we face. This video was developed featuring myself and some of my fellow teachers, to encourage others to get involved in the process.

Task Force members held “listening tour” events where teachers were invited to share their views. We held two public forums, featuring Pedro Noguera and Linda Darling-Hammond, who each offered us valuable guidance.

Then came the Teacher Convention. On the night of Thursday, April 7, we gathered in a ballroom for dinner and speeches. More than 200 teachers representing 95 different schools listened to Tony Smith, Betty Olson-Jones and Maria Santos welcome us to the event. The following day we spent the morning in sessions designed to inform us about various District initiatives. Then we were divided into rooms where we were asked to respond to the California Standards for the Teaching Profession. This is when things got a bit hot. In several of the rooms, including the one I was in, teachers rebelled. They did not feel heard, and they felt as if their voices were being channeled into predetermined boxes.

This story written by local blogger Katy Murphy captured the tension. Union president Betty Olson-Jones took the podium at the front of the room and invited people to share their thoughts. Teachers gave voice to years of frustration, and demanded that the process shift so they might be heard. Everyone was asked to write down their feedback, and those who wanted to help were invited to stay and plan the agenda for the next day. A group of about thirty of us stayed three hours late, reading every message, and debating how to reshape the agenda to give space for teachers to be fully heard.

The next morning was a new day.
We opened the process with Oakland teachers facilitating each room. We asked participants to discuss what was working in their classrooms, sites and at the District level, and what was not. Then we asked each of the six rooms to arrive at a set of recommendations. We did not need a lot of structure. What we needed was to trust the teachers to offer their wisdom.

Each of the six rooms became abuzz with teachers intensely working on their ideas and recommendations. Teachers shared wonderful experiences at some sites, where a focus on school culture and collaborative professional development has yielded great results. Others shared frustrations at outside consultants with top-down mandates and micro-managed timelines. Then each team whittled all this down to a set of recommendations, and brought these back to the full plenary session in the afternoon.

Each team had a representative read their recommendations to the room, as the Superintendent listened. As these people took the mic, we knew we had something very different on our hands from the previous day. First of all, the quality of the ideas was compelling. But far more moving was the fact that we had 200 teachers behind them, expressing their collective desires with powerful voices.

About two dozen teachers in the room wore signs that read “I received a pink slip.” Lay-off notices went out in March to more than 500 of Oakland’s 2,200 teachers, reaching some hired as long as five years ago. Betty Olson-Jones asked them to stand and be recognized, and the room recommended strongly that the layoff notices be rescinded.

The recommendations were concrete and many focused on changes that can be made without great expense. Around professional development, almost every group expressed a desire to see expert teaching recognized and elevated. Teachers suggested we be given time to observe one another, and that professional development be built around reflective practices such as Lesson Study or teacher action research, both of which are already under way in Oakland. Teachers recommended we make sure principals allow their staff to participate in the decisions around selecting their forms of professional development, and that real time be set aside for this collaboration. There was a very strong recommendation that Oakland teachers be the leaders of this work, rather than the reliance on expensive outside consultants.

Some schools in Oakland are thriving already. Teachers want the chance to visit them, and understand what they are doing to succeed. We want to build on our successes.

There was a strong sense of the importance of culture and the need to address societal inequities. Teachers called for professional development to unpack our own biases, and also for ethnic studies programs for our students to build pride and cultural strength.

Conditions were also an important issue. Teachers spoke of the need for small class sizes, although that is looking very problematic with the budget scenario we face in California. They asked for consistent school-wide discipline policies, and competitive compensation. Surveys focused on working conditions were distributed to teachers from each school, so the Task Force can find out what things are working well in the District, and where we need to improve the most.

As this video reveals, the atmosphere during these presentations was absolutely electric
. The energy that is available when people are actually allowed to have some agency is amazing! This is the thing many of our would-be education reformers miss. They seem to think we have to bribe or browbeat teachers into doing their jobs. The energy in this room showed that teachers are determined to improve, and what they want most of all is the opportunity to learn together.

Tony Smith took the mic at this point, and recognized the passion that was before him. He pledged to do his best to rescind as many lay-off notices as possible, and to look for ways to re-cast professional development in line with the recommendations he had heard. The dire straits of the California budget could not be escaped as we contemplated enacting this vision. But the students will still be here in the fall, as will most of the teachers, and Tony Smith promised that he will be with us as well, for at least the next five years. (note: many of the layoff notices have now been rescinded.)

Oakland Unified, like many urban districts, has a tattered history of top-down reform efforts. Previous superintendents and state appointed administrators have declared the need for sweeping change, and brought in outside consultants with sure-fire training programs to reboot our schools every few years. This convention and task force are taking a different approach, because they not only invite the teachers to offer their leadership. They have initiated a process that will make teachers difficult to ignore. Working with Ash Solar for the past six months has been a pleasant surprise. Every time we pushed for more teacher voice, he responded and created the space for it, including at the Teacher Convention. During the sharing of recommendations on Saturday, one teacher thanked Ash Solar, Maria Santos, and Superintendent Tony Smith for allowing us to “hi-jack” the convention. The teachers in the room rose to their feet and gave the leadership a sustained standing ovation -- a spirit of unity I have never witnessed in my 24 years in this District.

Our recommendations will take some imagination to implement. Much of the professional development under way in Oakland is still of the “off the shelf” variety, provided by outside consultants, neatly aligned with District objectives and state standards. Can we release control enough to unleash the energy that teachers displayed at this convention? Teacher research is already underway through programs like the Mills Teacher Scholars. Can we create opportunities to expand this to more schools? Lesson study is also at work - can we learn from the programs like the Oakland History Collaborative that have used this successfully? Can we identify other places within the District where teachers are having success collaborating together that we can build on?

The answer to these questions will, in large part, depend on the sustained leadership from people like Betty Olson-Jones, Ash Solar, and most importantly, the classroom teachers who made that convention come to life, and who continue to stay involved in this work.

What do you think? In these times of cuts and crises, can we still make room for some collaboration?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.