Working as an Education Activist Outside of the Classroom: My Foray Into the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

For the past nine years, I've spent 10 months of every year at my second home: Julia de Burgos Elementary School in the West Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Some days were exhilarating. Some were exhausting. All of them were meaningful. I had the opportunity to watch a class that I'd taught as Kindergarteners grow into eighth graders who were taller than I. I've seen more loose teeth, read more children's literature, sharpened more pencils, and purchased more Friday treats than I can possibly count. Every morning when I stepped foot in that building, I knew that it would be an important day.

For years, I clung to the notion that I should stay a classroom teacher, well, forever. But as I developed my practice and learned from colleagues as the years passed, there seemed to be so much more that we could not control. Standardized tests became more powerful. No Child Left Behind seemed to leave a lot of kids behind. Supplies became scarcer (and we began to buy more). Students seemed to have greater emotional needs with fewer resources. Our Non-Teaching Assistants dwindled from 2 to 0, our counselors from 2 to 0, and our low class sizes started to creep back up again. Those limitations made our jobs as teachers ever that much more important, demanding, and at times, impossible.

Once I started to see the negative affects poverty and societal inequity have on the children in our public education system, I began to see my role as an educator expand. I started seeing my work in the classroom as a facet of pursuing social justice for my students outside of the classroom.

As I began to develop myself as an advocate, I found that one of the most effective ways of doing so was also the most simple: telling my students' stories. Giving people an understanding of what happens inside the classroom is the first step in shifting the divisive, harmful, and flawed rhetoric surrounding school reform and teacher effectiveness.

That storytelling led me to realize that I can continue to do the most important job of an educator--advocating for my students--outside of the classroom. The place I found to continue this work? The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

I recently accepted a position with the Union working to continue fighting for what our students need. While "The Union" is often portrayed as greedy and inflexible, I can honestly say these assumptions are not based on facts or reality. Is part of the Union's job advocating for the rights of teachers? Absolutely. But, as it turns out, doing that is actually not so different from advocating for the rights of our students.

In my time working at the PFT, I have already had the opportunity to do the following: walk the neighborhood surrounding de Burgos and have candid discussions with families about what their concerns are; bring the voice of a classroom teacher into various coalition meetings; meet with groups of concerned parents in various neighborhoods of the city; and most recently, proudly march with thousands of education advocates from dozens of coalition groups around the city, declaring our need for full fair funding for Philadelphia education.

There is no quick "reform" that is going to rectify all of what ails our schools. However, the reason I chose to move out of the comfort of my own classroom and into the world of the Teachers' Union is actually pretty simple: I truly believe that the Union is part of the long term solution to the devastating current state of Philadelphia's public schools.

The work that I am doing with the PFT has been, and will continue to be, focused on the students of Philadelphia. It's a long process, and one that requires sustained commitment, funding, and dedication to providing our students with what they need.

And to my de Burgos family: I promise that my classroom experiences will be the cornerstone of my commitment to Philadelphia's children.