Leading change in turbulent times

A new MTA president and vice president will be elected on May 10, and I will end my tenure as president on July 15. This is therefore my last MTA Today editorial.

Serving in MTA’s leadership for the past eight years as vice president and president has been both rewarding and challenging.

The rewards have been many, including pride in the continued success of our schools. Over the past eight years, our students have been first or tied for first on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams in English, math and science. On certain international assessments we rank higher than Finland and just below Singapore. All of this is due to the caliber of our students and the hard work of you, our members.

Paul Toner Paul Toner
MTA President

But this has also been a time of great change and big challenges. I have often felt like a captain steering a ship through one typhoon after another.

During this period, we have experienced a major recession and growing public concern about the costs of public employee health insurance and pensions. Nationwide, public employee unions have been under attack. Laws have been passed in several states — including Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan — making it harder for educators to form and sustain their unions and exercise their collective bargaining rights. Many state affiliates have lost members and staff, as has the NEA.

In addition, demands for school improvement have increased. Technological innovations have exploded, changing how we teach and learn. Baby Boomers have been retiring in record numbers, bringing an influx of new teachers with new ideas into the profession.

Despite these challenges, the state of our union — the MTA — is strong and growing stronger. We rode out the recession without any membership loss. In fact, our membership has grown. Our MTA budget is balanced, and the vast majority of our elected officials recognize the importance of investing in education and working with our members to improve the lives of our students.

We haven’t been passive in the face of change. We adopted a Strategic Action Plan that calls for making our members the voice of education. We have engaged more members than ever before and continue to involve them through visits to local associations, panel discussions, All Presidents’ Meetings, regional meetings, member forums, UnConferences, regional trainings, professional development opportunities, social media, webinars and one-on-one conversations.

At the same time, we are trying to deal with numerous new initiatives. Many of these are worthy, but they are hard to cope with all at once. Topping the list for K-12 educators are RETELL, educator evaluation, District-Determined Measures, Common Core and PARCC. Higher education concerns include demands to improve graduation rates and balance the needs of our knowledge economy with the needs of students on campuses that are full to the brim and underfunded.

Believe me, I hear you when you say that the work is overwhelming. I have carried that message to the policymakers and leaders of our state and nation. But we must move forward and be the architects of reform — not the objects of it. We must stay engaged in the policy debates and discussions that affect our students and our profession.

This engagement is not only needed at the state level. We need you as leaders and members to share your ideas about your profession and the needs of your students with district, school and campus administrators as well as parents, political leaders, the business community and community organizations.

If you don’t think your school committee members are representing your interests, work to elect better candidates.

If your local newspaper isn’t providing accurate coverage of what your schools have accomplished, write a letter to the editor.

If you believe that one candidate for governor would do more than another to support your work and your students, actively support that candidate.

MTA leadership and staff can support and guide you in all of these endeavors, but ultimately it is you, the members, who have the power to bring about lasting change.

Not all of our members agree with all of the decisions that I, the MTA Board of Directors and the delegates to the Annual Meeting have made over the past eight years. We are a democratic union of 110,000 members, and dissent is fundamental to democracy. I welcome the debate. But when the debate is over and votes are taken by the Board or the delegates, we must move forward as one. That is the definition of a union — working together as one.

I was elected vice president and president based on a philosophy that I have been very public about: We must be true to both our profession and union values.

Based on countless conversations, along with member polling and focus groups, I believe that our members want us to be both a professional association that works on behalf of quality education and a union that defends the economic interests of our members — in that order. We cannot be successful in the latter unless we promote the former. I believe that in promoting quality education we have to be open to new ideas. We don’t have to agree with every new idea, but we also can’t say “no” to all of them and remain relevant to our members, students or the public.

I also believe that seeking change through dialogue and collaboration is the best approach. Trying to force change through confrontation should be a last resort, and it can only be successful if we have laid a strong foundation for our positions based on research, member engagement, relationship building and political and community organizing.

My successor will face many challenges and opportunities in the years ahead, including:

  • What can we do to close achievement gaps and increase graduation rates and college completion rates?
  • How can we build public support for more resources for our students and schools, especially in our Gateway Cities?
  • How do we provide students with a well-rounded education that develops them as active participants in our democracy while also providing them with the skills they need to be prepared for our knowledge-based economy?
  • What new models of compensation can be developed to attract and retain the most talented educators and provide salaries on par with comparable professions?
  • What improvements can be made in the teacher preparation, licensure, professional development and evaluation systems that will ensure that educators are equipped to serve an increasingly diverse student population?
  • How can we end the perennial debate over Commonwealth Charter Schools and work with educators, parents and students to develop teacher-led and district-based innovation to reduce the demand for charter schools?
  • How do we transition away from an educational system that treats all students alike and use new technology and methods to move toward a more individualized competency-based system that challenges students and allows them to move forward at their own pace?

In closing, I must thank a number of people. Thank you, Tim Sullivan, MTA vice president, and Ann Clarke, MTA executive director-treasurer, for your unfailing support during these challenging times. Thank you to the Board of Directors and all of the local presidents who give of themselves to advocate for our members and students. Thank you to our excellent and hardworking staff members, who always put the members first. Thank you to all of my friends and supporters who have given me the opportunity to lead this great organization. Finally, thank you to my wife, Susan; my daughter, Grace; and my son, Jack, for making such huge personal sacrifices to let me serve the members of the MTA. I believe that together we have navigated these turbulent waters well.

Although I am term-limited as president, there is no term limit on my passion for improving the lives of our students through our schools, our colleges and our profession. I will be an activist for quality public education in some capacity. I hope to continue working with many of you in the future.

Thank you!

Other Editorials by Paul Toner