Another project begins.

Today Park Ridge teachers and staff headed back to work.

As is the tradition, I got to address them as union president. Here are a few excerpts:

Last Thursday, as the PREA negotiating team and the board team were finishing up a negotiating session, I turned to board president John Heyde and said, “John. Do you want to announce our agreement?” And John said, “No, Fred. I think it would be right for you to do it.”

It is kind of symbolic of the way our negotiations have gone. If you bracket out the wait time that occurred because of board elections and the seating of four new board members, this was the fastest negotiating in my memory.

So it is my great pleasure to announce to you that we begin the year with a tentative agreement with the Board of Education on a new three year bargained agreement.

To say that we appreciate the efforts of the Board in reaching this agreement is an understatement. Following many difficult contract negotiations, and I’m old enough to have been there for all of them, this is the second contract in a row where we have been able to reach a tentative agreement before the start of the school year.

Sitting across the table from us were the Board’s negotiators, Board president John Heyde and Pat Fioretto. Our negotiations were frank, respectful, and civil.

“Civil.” That’s not something we saw much of this summer if you watched too much cable or read a paper. You saw and read screeching and gun toting. Angry people calling people who disagreed with them, “Nazis.”

Park Ridge teachers and board members know how to have a civil discussion even when we disagree.  If our negotiating process was any indication, I’m thinking our new board will bring real, positive change to the relationship among all the stakeholders in District 64, including those of us who work directly with students. At least that is my hope.

* * * * * * * *

This was a summer when educators heard from Education Secretary Arne Duncan about a Race to the Top (an odd metaphor for schools. Racing. Where someone wins and someone loses), and lifting limits on the number of charter schools with no differentiation between good charters and bad. We heard how good it was to hand urban schools over to the direct rule of local politicians (a very scary thought when you live in Illinois and apparently New Jersey, our chief competitor in the Race to the Top when it comes to public corruption).

In California at the union convention, I sat in a coffee shop with a group of teachers from South Central Los Angeles as they described working with their administrators to figure out how the contract guided them as they were laying off teachers with up to 25 years seniority and facing class sizes of 40 to 45.

While banks and other financial institutions got our tax money for the stimulus plan, there was no similar bailout for schools, in spite of 100s of billions that were promised. Like Illinois, state leaders are simply filling budget holes and little of the money is finding its way as new added support for education.

This summer we heard about testing, and linking teacher tenure, evaluations and compensation to test scores, and giving money to school districts based on test scores and test scores and test scores and test scores.

After getting to know our board of education better as a result of negotiating, I think we may have leadership that thinks differently than what has become the conventional educational wisdom. As least I hope so.

* * * * * * * *

Let me share a few personal views on what constitutes some essential ingredients for any successful strategy for improvement.

That good working conditions are good teaching conditions and good learning conditions.

That these are provided by an agreement, collectively bargained and honored by both teachers, administrators and the board of education.

That teacher voice is crucial to a quality school system.

That the best leadership is shared leadership.

That good ideas come from the bottom and from the top.

That the responsibility for good schools doesn’t stop at the school’s front door, but it is also a community, a state and a national responsibility.

* * * * * * * *

Now we have classes to set up. We have students coming in tomorrow. We have building business to organize. A million things, each seemingly small, but which take time and are considered essential.

So, just one final thing:  I have an addiction for books by teachers about teaching. And one of the best and one of my favorites is Teacher Man by Frank McCourt who also wrote the wonderful Pulitzer Prize winning Angela’s Ashes. If you haven’t read it, you must. McCourt died this past summer at 78.

A public school teacher in New York for 30 years, McCourt once said about himself:

“I don’t call myself anything. I was more than a teacher. And less. In the classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.”

Frank McCourt would tell his students:

“You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.”

So on this opening day I’m thinking about Frank McCourt. I’m thinking about the tough times many teachers, kids, parents and schools districts are facing these days. I’m wishing for all of us a very good year.  And I’m thanking you for allowing me to serve these last ten years.

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