Teacher unions are often subjected to a single story — protecting bad teachers. I urge you to take a deeper look at the work of the Cambridge Education Association before making assumptions about what our organization does and stands for.
Teacher unions came from the roots of the labor movement — founded to protect teachers from unfair labor practices and poor working conditions. The focus was on teachers and their rights. In the early 2000s, the CEA (CTA at the time) made a shift to put students at the center of our work and elevate professional issues such as addressing achievement gaps, promoting high-quality professional development and developing multiple career paths.
“The Cambridge Teachers Association believes that supporting students to learn and reach their fullest potential in all areas of their lives should be at the center of everything we do.” (CTA Bylaws, 2006 revision)
Underlying the student-centered focus is the concept that “Student Learning Conditions are Educator Working Conditions.” While occasionally these are in conflict, having excellent schools for students to learn requires that we have excellent schools for educators to work, and having excellent schools for educators to work requires that we have excellent schools for students to learn.
Educators in our association are aware that opportunity gaps and inequitable outcomes persist. Despite years of well-intentioned and skilled professionals working hard, we are still not meeting the needs of students from marginalized groups. As a result, in the last few years, the CEA has shifted toward social justice unionism. I want to share some of the work we are doing toward this end and invite the community to join us in our efforts.
As a district, we have long had the goal of increasing the diversity of our educators, but have made little progress over the past many years. Under my leadership since July 2016, the CEA has taken a number of actions. We formed a CEA Educators of Color Committee to “engage educators of color and allies around personal, systemic and historic issues that are unique to educators of color.” This committee has organized a survey, social events, conversation evenings and has presented findings to the superintendent. They are currently working closely with the new diversity program manager. Also, in the teacher/administrator contract that we ratified last spring, we negotiated a diversity committee to “bring forward to the superintendent issues of diversity identified by the CEA and to develop advisory recommendations to the superintendent with respect to such issues.” While the language is broad, our intent was to focus on the issues of educators of color, particularly recruitment and retention. We have already seen progress and are encouraged by current plans.
This fall, when the CRLS Black Student Union released a video documenting racism they experienced at CRLS, we took action. That Friday after school, we held facilitated conversations open to all CEA members — over 50 CRLS educators came. We started the conversations focusing on student perspectives, and moved into what educators need. The conversations were raw, the issues are complex and deeply important to every educator, and it was clear that we had a significant amount of work to do to come together. We assembled a small leadership team, which is conducting an assessment in which we will listen to all of our members with an eye toward taking action to make significant change. While we want to immediately address the urgent issues raised by the video, the work needed to dismantle institutionalized racism in our schools cannot be achieved by dramatic gestures, but by slow, steady and unrelenting commitment to engaging educators in the self-reflection and learning necessary to change.
Finally, one of the most exciting opportunities the CEA has is the Building Equity Bridges Nellie Mae Grant. The CEA collaborated with the district and received a grant for 14 months and $295,000. This grant will allow us to better understand the root causes of systemic inequities that we have never examined as deeply. The role of the CEA will be to provide safe spaces for educators to share their experiences, particularly the barriers they face to achieving equitable outcomes for all. We can create spaces that encourage educators to take risks and to honestly reflect on their own practice and the practices at the school and district. We will leverage the work of individual educators through collective inquiry and action and put CPS in a place to really make a difference for our students.
The CEA is currently updating our bylaws to include social justice as a third pillar in our mission. We are committed to working with the entire Cambridge community — families, district leaders, school committee members and others to make equity the reality in each and every classroom across the city. This is what social justice unionism looks like.
Dan Monahan is president of the Cambridge Education Association.