Quietly and carefully, a movement of dissident teachers has been taking shape within United Teachers Los Angeles. It began last fall, with e-mails and telephone calls among a group of disaffected and disappointed teachers. By year's end, some 50 of them had volunteered to become official members of UTLA's policy-making body, the House of Representatives.
On Jan. 8, the group held its first strategy session. At the meeting, which I attended, teachers shared their grievances with both UTLA and LAUSD and talked about their plan to lobby for dramatic changes in union leadership and focus.
They've even named their fledgling caucus: NewTLA.
"I think there is a silent majority of teachers who are very frustrated with the status quo," Mike Stryer said in opening remarks at the Jan. 8 meeting, held at Mercado La Paloma south of downtown and attended by 21 NewTLA members.
Stryer, a Fairfax High teacher and former school board candidate, helped establish NewTLA last fall with his friend Jordan Henry, a Santee Education Complex teacher.
Henry had been considering a campaign to succeed outgoing UTLA president A.J. Duffy but pulled out in November after the UTLA board of directors moved up the self-nomination deadline, making it harder for him to officially declare his candidacy.
"As the call for reform in public education has mounted locally and nationally, UTLA leadership has emphatically chosen to double down on existing positions rather than ante up to new conversations," Henry wrote to supporters on Nov. 16 in a letter mapping out a different strategy for change.
"I have conceded," he wrote, "that there is more to be gained aggressively building a base than there is steadily chipping away at a machine."
Henry and Stryer recruited like-minded reform-starved teachers to volunteer to fill vacancies in UTLA's House, and they now occupy about 20% of the House seats. Henry called the uprising "an unprecedented event in our union's history."
At the Jan. 8 meeting, Henry and Stryer told teachers that by merely attending meetings on a regular basis (last Wednesday was their first), they will be able to influence policy discussions, since there may not be another bloc of like-minded members as large as theirs.
With another 90 or so House vacancies coming up over the next several months, the group's goal is to grab as many additional seats as possible by making their agenda known.
So what's the agenda?
Let me list the grievances I heard laid out Jan. 8:
Randy Grant, a Fairfax High teacher, said that UTLA has become as unresponsive and dysfunctional as LAUSD and that the union has utterly failed to design or demand better professional development programs than the antiquated and ineffective ones now in place.
Trebor Jacquez of Santee said schools that have the biggest challenges are losing their best teachers with no intervention from the union. Several present insisted on ending the practice of using only tenure to determine layoffs and transfers.
George Crowder of White Elementary School said the union has worked hard to ensure that good teachers are treated fairly but has also protected ineffective teachers.
Natasha Morse of Los Angeles High marveled at how, as a teacher in just her third year, she gets virtually no input or oversight from administrators, colleagues or union representatives about how she's doing and how she can do better.
"I shouldn't be left alone. They should be worried about me," said Morse, who wondered, like others, why there can't be a union-fostered culture of collaboration among teachers who can help educate one another on best practices and experiences.
Jose Navarro, a Sylmar High instructor and 2009 California teacher of the year, said the union shoots down rather than supports teacher-led reform ideas.
Mark Muskrath of Santee said union leaders waste time on things like irrelevant foreign policy resolutions while "throwing younger teachers under the bus."
Kristen Weinstein of Roscomare Elementary wants to know why there can't be holistic teacher evaluations with input from students, teachers, administrators, parents and anyone else who might identify both weaknesses and strengths. A number of teachers spoke up for better evaluations of administrators as well.
James Encinas of Westminster Avenue Elementary said he doesn't know exactly how to construct a better teacher-evaluation system but wants UTLA to lead the discussion rather than avoid it.
There was little discussion and no consensus on whether student test scores ought to be considered in teacher evaluations, a national trend LAUSD has supported and UTLA has adamantly opposed. Teachers at the meeting neither embraced nor dismissed the possibility, but Stryer later said evaluations should "perhaps" include student testing.
"What's frustrating for many is that the union leadership hasn't come up with a proactive proposal of their own," Stryer said.
Can that and other entrenched UTLA policies and traditions end, just because 50 teachers want them to, or will the reformers merely motivate others to rally around the old guard?
"I'm optimistic," Henry later said, calling the enthusiasm and support encouraging. "I want to build this union up, not tear it down."
In fact, many of the teachers who attended the Jan. 8 meeting emphasized that they're not anti-union. They simply believe their union would be far more productive if it quit wasting so much time on contractual and political issues and resisting change out of hand and more time actively supporting teachers in the classroom while becoming a leading voice on reforms that benefit teachers and students.
Teachers who care "have got to keep fighting" for those changes, said Navarro, "because the kids deserve it."
(For more information, go to http://www.newtla.com).