Indianapolis School Leader: I Respect Teachers Unions and Their Right to Rally for Better Working Conditions, but I Don’t Support Their Divisive Rhetoric and Inequitable Practices

India Hui, executive director of Thrival Indy Academy, standing with 2018 academy graduates, Trevon Sykes (right) and Rasean Edwards (left). (Sunny Yang)

Updated, Feb. 19

Being married to a teacher who is a member of her local, statewide and national associations, I have been made privy to the recent concerns of district teachers. This means I spent a good amount of my time back in early November attempting to relay the message to my colleagues, who lead charter schools and networks.

These conversations took place leading up to the NEA’s Nov. 19 Red for Ed rally at the Indianapolis Statehouse that brought out thousands of teachers and shut down more than half of the state’s public school districts.

I realized that a rally did not make sense to some educators because they expect teachers to be selfless, altruistic individuals who should not care about things such as pay.

I have always found the assumption that teachers should not and do not care about money extraordinarily problematic. I do not know one person who would do this work for free. We are professionals who (many of us) went into student debt in order to be here. The absolute least that should happen is a respectable wage and sustainable work conditions.

The reality is, there are two distinct types of K-12 educators: those who educate as a career and those who educate as a lifestyle. To be clear, I am not here to argue that one is better or more impactful than the other. There are many educators who do not leave work at work. We experience high levels of vicarious trauma, and we struggle to follow all those rules about how and when to engage our students and families.

We talk about our students on a constant basis, spend our own money to provide resources and spend more time in our classroom or building than we do in our homes. We work ourselves ragged and often burn out within five years. I want to point out that these are usually teachers of color who have been conditioned to believe that we must sacrifice our own mental and emotional health “for the cause.”

Then there are teachers who are members of their local associations and have no qualms with advocating for themselves when it comes to compensation and benefits. I do not consider these people to be selfish; they have their own families and priorities. They usually have a healthy ability to separate themselves from their work, and they are clear about where and how they spend their time, as per their local bargaining agreement.

They feel they deserve better pay, and they do. They feel the growing list of requirements for renewing licenses is unreasonable, and it is. They have every right to stand up for themselves and demand better work conditions. I am the daughter of two very involved union members, so I will always respect the power of a collective voice.

However, I do not and will not respect divisive rhetoric or inequity. As I considered whether or not I would wear my #redfored in solidarity with these educators, I encountered two constant themes. 1) Charter schools are to blame for all our problems, and 2) There needs to be a “hold harmless” agreement to keep lower ILEARN (state test) scores from impacting school accountability grades. Educators tend to pit traditional and charter public schools against one another, when in reality not one entity has figured out how to sustain and scale high-quality, equitable education in our state.

Families who are leaving their neighborhood districts are not doing so because they are being stolen, as they are not property. They have not been bamboozled or duped into moving their children to a new school, and to insinuate such is an insult to parents and their ability to make sound decisions based on their children’s academic needs. These families choose alternative options because they are not, for one reason or another, happy with what their district is offering.

My challenge to educators who feel that charter schools are taking their students is simple: Focus on making your school or district one that best serves all students. Train your teachers on racial equity. Diversify your staff and — and this is important — your school and district leadership. Re-evaluate your curriculum and discipline practices. Blaming charter schools only goes so far when your school’s achievement gap is larger than the percentage of black students meeting proficiency within your school.

Further, the vigor around the “hold harmless” due to lower ILEARN pass rates is steeped in racial inequity. There is a sudden rage against state standardized testing and its adverse impact on students and teachers now that predominantly white schools have seen a decrease in scores. The same schools and districts that proudly fly their “Blue Ribbon” school flags now do not want student results to be considered as an accountability factor. (On Feb. 3, the Indiana General Assembly passed a Senate bill that would allow schools to use state test results as part of a teacher’s annual performance evaluation only if they would improve the teacher’s rating.)

These schools reaped the benefits of the testing environment in this state while majority minority schools and districts struggled to compensate teachers and faced state takeover because of the results of those very same tests. Where were the rallies when African-American and Latino students were being subjected to the adverse effects of not passing these tests? Where were the calls to action when schools with a higher concentration of teachers of color were adversely impacted by these tests?

I support public education. I support public educators. I do not support divisive rhetoric or inequitable practices. I charge everyone who rallied to interrogate your school’s stance on racial equity. I charge school and district leaders to have honest conversations about your achievement gap.

I charge every teacher to put that same energy they had on Nov. 19, 2019, into leading an inclusive classroom with equitable practices, which lead to the success of all students. If your fight excludes the needs and voices of your students and colleagues of color, go back to the drawing board.

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