New WTU Pres. Nathan Saunders: 'It's been all teacher blood' on the floor
Space and time limitations kept me--as they often do--from including as much as I wanted in today's story about new WTU president Nathan Saunders. So here's a bit more.
Saunders, 45, is the son of a bricklayer, born in the Washington Highlands neighborhood of Southeast D.C. His name first surfaced in The Washington Post in the summer of 1981 as a 16-year-old intern for D.C. Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8). According to the story, Saunders was trying to organize support for an extension of the Voting Rights Act. Standing near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. and Portland Street S.E., he told a group of voting-age adults: "If you don't vote, it's just like you're a slave standing in a cotton field. You don't have any say in what happens."
Saunders attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools before graduating from Morehouse College with a business degree. He worked as an accountant and in real estate and economic development before beginning his education career--first as a volunteer teaching chess at the old Phelps Vocational High School and then as a government teacher at Anacostia High School in the late 1990s. Saunders said his union activism began when a colleague's grievance was ignored by the WTU. Looking at the union financial reports with an accountant's eye, he said it became apparent that the numbers under president Barbara Bullock didn't add up.
Bullock eventually pled guilty to conspiracy and other charges in the theft of $4.6 million in union funds from 1995 to 2002 and served five years in federal prison. Saunders filed a civil suit charging that WTU and the American Federation of Teachers failed to oversee union finances and spending. He was elected general vice president in 2005, part of a reform ticket that included George Parker, the union president he unseated this week.
He holds a masters degree from the National Labor College and completed Harvard Law School's six-week Trade Union Program for labor leaders. His wife, Chandrai Jackson-Saunders, is a school psychologist for DCPS and the daughter of former WTU president Jimmie Jackson. They have a son who is a senior at Roosevelt High School.
Here are more excerpts from our conversation Wednesday afternoon, edited for clarity and length:
BT: When I talked to George Parker last week I asked what he expected if you won. He said gridlock and confrontation.
NS: I've got more skills to solve problems than practically any president that's ever run WTU. I also have formalized training in problem resolution. My masters is in negotiation and management....Part of the Harvard Trade Union Program is conflict management. And so I think I have some unique skills to solve problems.
BT: There is a segment of the DCPS community that sees your election as a setback.
NS: No, absolutely not. My election indicates that WTU will be up and running and fully functioning and contributing to real public school dialogue and success. The fact of the matter is that public school reform to a large extent under the former mayor and the former chancellor did not involve the community and teachers very successfully. I can say to you that I will not sit by idly while policies and practices are instituted that do not involve the teachers and the community. I'm going to be very proactive, not reactive, in involving the community and teachers in public school reform. So in that regard it's positive. Now if you don't want any community input and you don't want any teacher input, then [my election] could be viewed as a negative.
BT: You framed your victory as one for job security and union democracy. What was absent was any mention of the interests of students.
NS: What's good for teachers is often times good, very good, for students. Empowering teachers is also a method of empowering students. I argue that the best teachers are empowered teachers. That's what I tried to do as a classroom teacher. I saw in my students a sense of pride and a sense of personal growth and development when I was dealing with the Bullock scandal and dealing with my union. When they saw me in the newspaper and they saw me speaking publicly about issues of education, they were proud....I taught social justice. Rev. Al Sharpton co-taught my government class with me during [his] presidential campaign. So students are important. But I'm not afraid to talk about teacher empowerment. The union serves three primary functions: compensation, negotiation and working conditions. Members pay to be in the union. Under the law you are required to represent those interests and that's what I do and I'm proud of that. It doesn't mean that I don't represent student interests, though. I believe that often times the best way to get an excellent finished product is to represent the worker who has to complete the finished product.
BT: So it would be a mistake to assume there will be a new period of confrontation and conflict?
NS: Absolutely. Listen, today I begin to build my legacy as president of the WTU. I get nowhere with confrontation. Nowhere at all. But whenever confrontation will lead me to progress for the people I represent, I will engage in confrontation. But confrontation is not the first order business. Getting the job done is the first order of business. At the same time, when your opponent understands that you're not afraid to go to the mat, you don't have to go to the mat quite as often. But what we've experienced in the last three years is a lot of blood on the floor, and it's been all teacher blood.
BT: Tell me as succinctly as you can your biggest issues with IMPACT.
NS: My biggest issue with IMPACT is that it causes teachers to be unnecessarily stressed about a job which requires a tremendous amount of creativity. I think my problem with IMPACT is that it requires teachers' careers to be jeopardized for factors that they have absolutely no control over, which include poverty, health care and dysfunctional homes.
BT: So if you had Harry Potter's wand what would you do to IMPACT? How would you change it to make it fair?
NS: I don't feel responsible to change it to make it fair. What I feel responsible for is to help create a system that yields fair results for the people that it judges....that is not punitive and cannot be easily manipulated by individuals with nefarious intent.
BT: You think the whole thing needs to be re-thought?
NS: It should be in its entirety, absolutely.
BT: In an evaluation instrument [that you consider] fair to teachers, is there any place for value-added methodology? Taking students' previous year's test scores, developing a predictive model for how they should do the next year and then measuring that against how they ultimately perform?
NS: Teachers do that every day. I did in the classroom. It's called pre-test and post-test....I love testing in the European model, which is that they test for determining a baseline, not for purposes of punishing.
BT: So you don't believe that value-added should be used, if it's used at all, for high-stakes decisions like hiring and firing?
NS: Absolutely. Now that's a fact. But I believe it can and should be used, but it is only as one of many evaluation tools.
BT: There's a legal barrier you face in that IMPACT cannot be collectively bargained.
NS: Ever seen a law you couldn't change? All you have to do is have the will. All you have to do is build a movement around an issue and change public opinion. You show merit in your ideas. That to me is very exciting.
BT: Before IMPACT, before Michelle Rhee, the vast majority of teachers got "meets expectations" or "exceeds expectations" on their evaluations. Yet the school district had a really abysmal record of academic achievement. There's a disconnect there that people find hard to justify.
NS: I find it hard to justify that in one of the most educated cities, probably the most educated city in America, and one of the most affluent cities, one third of our children live in poverty. I find that more appalling.
BT: Basically the Rhee reality is, "We know there's poverty, that there's family dysfunction and health issues. We can't do anything about that. All we can control is what is in the classroom. And we can't use that as an excuse any more. But you're in a different place.
NS: Absolutely. And let's understand why I'm in a different place. I believe that the Rhee reality you just described helps allow those conditions to exist. Because they take the pressure off society to focus on them...We do a disservice to children whenever we allow the government or others to discount the fact that crime exists in these communities and we say it doesn't matter...It does matter. That's the social justice aspect of education.
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