Power on the Job
Julie Washington, a
kindergarten teacher, is also Vice President of
the United Teachers/Los Angeles. May she be an
inspiration to other teachers, silent for so
long, helping them find their voices.
by Julie Washington
How incredible is it that a kindergarten
teacher from south central Los Angeles is
standing here speaking about creating Power on
the job. What has brought me to this point is
one thingĂ˘€Â¦you see I simply love teaching.
I am one of the luckiest people in the world.
My job, my profession is my passion in life. I
believe providing and ensuring a quality public
education is vital to supporting the
fundamental building blocks of creating and
maintaining a democratic socially conscious
society. I believe that I have a duty to speak
to inequities in the system and fight for equal
access to opportunities.
I worked at Normandie Ave. elementary school, a
school that is cradled in the most violent and
crime ridden area in Los Angeles and I wanted
to be where I could make a difference. But I
eventually found out that the twenty children I
nurtured and loved every year in my classroom
did not make a difference. My efforts were not
effecting any long term change for the students
or the school community.
My kindergarten students whose eyes would
twinkle with curiosity and wonder, ready and
eager to learn, somehow transformed into dull-
eyed, low achieving, disconnected and
disinterested fifth graders.
Somehow this magical reform known as No Child
Left Behind that the powers from up above had
thought up for us just didnĂ˘€™t seem to be
working. It seemed to be leaving plenty of my
children behind! And though many of us screamed
out about the inequities and rigidness
inflicted upon us and our students our cries
fell on deaf ears.
No Child Left Behind was the law of the land
and we had our marching orders. Teachers almost
immediately became the Ă˘€śproblemĂ˘€ť and seemed to
be the sole reason why achievement was low. It
didnĂ˘€™t matter about lack of educational
funding, overwhelming class sizes, lack of
textbooks, proper materials and /or
incompetence of the district and its machine.
Social constructs and barriers to achievement
such as poverty, violence, drugs, language
differences, health issues,
institutionalizedracism and sexism were said to
Teachers are the target and the easy scapegoat.
Ă˘€Â˘ Scripted programs: in Los Angeles the choice
was Open Court. The publisher is said to be
friends with President Bush. With one size fits
all curriculum there is no room for teacher
Ă˘€Â˘ Limited scope of teaching: bread and water
diet, no content, nothing to hook a thirst to
Ă˘€Â˘ Accountability has become the buzz word and
seems to apply only to the actual workers.
Tests and tests and then tests some more!
Teacher surveys have indicated that in some of
our lowest performing schools upwards of 20% of
school time is focused on testing.
As the chapter chair and area director,
teachers were calling me at home, meeting me in
the parking lot with complaints and concerns.
So I went to my union leadership. Surely my
union was developing ways to fight back against
this tidal wave that was so obviously formed to
wipe out public education. What was the plan?
What was my unions plan?
To my horror I found they had no plan. They
were for the most part complacent or worse even
actively supporting some of the most stifling
parts of the districtĂ˘€™s so called reform. How
could my union leadership be so disconnected
from what was going on at the site level? Why
didnĂ˘€™t they care? Were they just a bureaucracy
machine themselves? Why hadnĂ˘€™t they formed an
alliance with parents, community members, and
other unions to fight back? I thought that
unions were from the people and about people.
Realizing I could not fight this battle by
myself I joined a progressive caucus within the
union called PEAC progressive educators for
action. One evening we had a steering committee
meeting I will never forget. We decided to put
a slate together to run for the offices of our
union. And we laid out the strategy to win.
That strategy was simple: we were going to go
site to site to site to organize. We needed to
listen to what members thought was important,
what were their priorities and issues.
We spoke to the social justice platform of our
slate. We dared to ask the membership to not
just wait for union leadership to do something
but rather to step up to the plate and become
the union. DonĂ˘€™t wait for someone to save you,
We had hundreds of teachers all over Los
Angeles making calls and providing support for
the campaign. There was hope and excitement. An
incumbent had never lost a city-wide election
in UTLA. Our bids for office were long shots,
but it was worth it if we could push our issues
so that leadership would be forced to deal with
Who knew that we would capture all four of the
city wide seats we ran for? And we would sweep
the board of directors with a clear Ă‚Âľ majority,
it was just unbelievable! But the message was
clear, our members were tired of business as
Since we have taken office we have begun the
steps to becoming a real union. One of the
first things we have needed to do is to come to
grips with the fact that change is sometimes
painful and slower than desired.
Sometimes just when you think youĂ˘€™ve identified
the enemy or barrier and you discover itĂ˘€™s
really a lot deeper than you think.
The officers visit sites several times a week
to keep our fingers on the pulse of our
membership and to offer encouragement and
support to the site rep. and all members. This
also helps to promote more frequent site
We meet regularly with the other six unions
that are employed by our district. We are
developing plans to support each others
efforts. Last Wednesday our AFT vice president
and the vice president of the administrators
union went to SEIU negotiations meeting to show
solidarity. Even though they were both kicked
out the statement was made loud and clear. We
are united with our fellow union brothers and
We have formed real alliances with community
based organizations. Our school reform package
that was just revealed a couple of weeks ago
was developed in collaboration with several
CBOĂ˘€™s and parent groups. We want teachers and
other staff along with parents and community
organizations to lead the effort in school
reform. This collective will demand to have a
voice in school reform.
With this added focus the effort becomes much
more global. We need to scrutinize state
funding. As most of you know we have a governor
who can not be trusted. We have a governor who
raids school funding with one hand and attacks
teachers, nurses, firefighters and police with
the other. His actions in my opinion, turned
out to be a blessing in disguise: it showed the
nation the power of public servants. Even the
terminator himself was not a match for all of
us united! We need to maintain those
relationships and ties created in his battle
and build upon them. Because the fight is
bigger than any one of us can handle.
With the adjustment for regional costs,
California ranks 43rd among states in
educational spending per student. There is a
direct correlation between CaliforniaĂ˘€™s
shameful lack of funding and CaliforniaĂ˘€™s
schools pitiful academic standing. California
in all of its liberalism is one of the three
most segregated states for Latino and African
American students. If we are truly going to
bring equity to our school system we have to
form strong alliances with parents, community
and independents who are committed to change.
We have to develop short and long term
strategies that resonate with the public and
provide support for other groupĂ˘€™s struggles as
well. We have to hold politicians accountable
and stop rubber stamping certain party members
who are not responsive to the working class and
to the poor.
Even though I have become a vice president in
the second largest teacherĂ˘€™s local in the
country, I am and will always be that plain
kinder teacher who loves her babies. I left my
babies to fight for them. I believe in public
education, to me it is the social justice issue
of this decade. And it is the responsibility of
my union to fight to preserve and improve it!
And to speak for those whose voices would be
drowned out. At the risk of dating myself:
Power to the People!
Labor Notes Conference
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES