Wender-Shubow and Kuniholm discuss Teacher Listening Session


Contributed by Jessica Wender-Shubow

Brookline Educators Union (BEU) President Jessica Wender-Shubow shared her thoughts on the teacher listening session.

Along with the Student Listening Forums, the Brookline School Committee (BSC) is holding three Teacher Listening Sessions this week for elementary, middle and high school teachers. The session for elementary school teachers occurred on Wednesday, Feb. 10 from 3 to 4:30 PM. The Sagamore spoke to two attendees: Brookline Educators Union (BEU) president Jessica Wender-Shubow and third grade teacher Alice Kuniholm. Here are their thoughts.

We could not reach the BSC for comment at this time.

Alice Kuniholm, Third Grade Teacher

What was discussed in the meeting?

A majority of the meeting was spent on communication. There’s this sort of funny, non-linear method of communication that Brookline uses, where parents sometimes find things out first, or some schools will find out about upcoming changes but other schools won’t. We talked a lot about the need to streamline that, and about the BSC’s activity on the parent forum on Facebook and whether that serves to validate what’s becoming kind of a toxic place.

Do you feel that these communication problems have been due to COVID-19?

I think the pandemic has really served to highlight the ugly qualities of everyone. So, I think these problems were there before. You know, Brookline’s not famous for their great communication with their staff. Over the course of changing superintendents, and changing principals, and then changing the number of schools we have, it really magnified the issues we had with communication.

What led to the listening sessions?

One of the biggest complaints has been communication, and it’s something the BSC had done on their own. We know that parents have a line to the BSC through Facebook or through the public comment, and teachers, by the time public comment rolls around, are exhausted. So it was really great that they had reached out and said, “We’re going to do these.” That felt like the first step in repairing that communication breakdown, and it was really heartening even though most of the answers were “we’re not sure” or “we’re not involved in that planning” or “that’s not planned yet.” It felt really good to have a space to ask them the questions we needed answers to.

Did you feel any conclusions were reached?

I don’t know if it will lead to anything, but another major piece that was discussed was the return of first grade students, and then eventually second grade students. We kind of got into this funny loop of the BSC saying they’re probably going to order desks and then a teacher saying, “Actually, Matt Gillis, who’s in charge of filling the room with what we need, has said we’re not going to order any more desks.” Then teachers say, “If you want to bring more students back, we need a place for them to sit.” If anything, I think it cleared up or brought to light some areas of confusion, but the majority of the answers were “we don’t know.”

What were those areas of confusion that you felt needed to be brought forward?

We have a huge staffing problem. In a lot of schools we have parents doing teachers’ jobs. We heard that there’s no plan on Brookline’s part to get teachers vaccinated. It was nice to hear how they’d broken down communication to parents, to acknowledge that the Brookline discussion page on Facebook has become very anti-teacher, but they have one person on there who is just trying to bring factual evidence to the page. I’m hoping they really heard the teachers’ frustration around communication. They seemed to echo that frustration, but I just don’t think it’s the same thing when it’s your job versus when it’s your position you’re doing part-time.

How did you personally feel going into the meeting and how are you feeling coming out of it?

I had very low expectations going into the meeting because I didn’t really know what it was going to be like. I didn’t know if it was going to be one of those Zooms where you see pages of people, or if it was going to be a listening session like I’ll be listening. I’m not a person that is afraid to raise my hand on Zoom, so I do feel that I did my part in advocating for the teachers, but I don’t feel like any problems were tackled. It was a first small step moving forward, but we’re going to need a lot more steps.

What do you think are those next steps moving forward?

Moving forward we’re going to need a lot more transparency between administration and teachers that are on the ground. [Interim Superintendent] Dr. Marini needs to stop sending emails to families before he emails the staff, and the BSC needs to keep doing what they’re doing––having these listening sessions and going into the building to see what it’s actually like if they’re going to keep making decisions on what next year is going to look like.

Jessica Wender-Shubow, Brookline Educators Union (BEU) President

How did the meeting go?

Great. It’s really good when there is time for people to dialogue, and I appreciated the comment at the end from [Vice Chair] David Pearlman saying that it’s really important that people be (shown) the respect of really having space to communicate on their own terms. Too often there are just a few people that just stand in for the rest of the educators. There’s very little chance, except through the union really, where everyone is treated with equal respect. So, you get a taste of that through a conversation like this.

What were some of the big things discussed in the meeting?

What struck me most was the issue of half-formed plans dumped on teachers once a date for them is already set, and no real role for the teachers who know the best in the process. There’s a real lack of planning with educators and that’s what I took away, and then the communication comes after the fact. You hear about it at the same time that parents or students hear about it and you’re just like, “Woah, wait a minute, I’m just supposed to make that happen.” It seemed to be a consistent thing. There is also a deep concern over health and safety––not just to keep COVID-19 away, but also to not ruin teaching and learning in the process. I really appreciated and learned a lot hearing the teachers explain some of the problems––what it means to not be able to move in the classroom, to not be able to have small groups.

Do you feel that the Union concerns were heard by the BSC?

No. I wasn’t going to speak at all, but I did want to make one comment about this issue of communication and lack of teacher input. The superintendent wanted a committee with a small number of teachers so he could say that there was a teacher voice and he could address his own agenda. But what the BEU has asked for is a joint labor management process with a shared agenda, where the agenda would be really refined and developed jointly. It’s one thing to say you care about what teachers think; it’s another thing to actually give them the respect and the space to help set the agenda. If it’s just someone else’s agenda, it’s just up to someone else to decide what happens. It becomes just, “I’m going to throw you a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” That’s not real respect. (Real respect is) giving the unionized teachers an opportunity to determine what the discussion is going to be.

Could you share some specific examples where you feel like the BSC is not really listening to what the union wants?

We’re still waiting for a joint labor management process to talk about the logistical plans in the classroom, which is different than when and if to change the six-feet distancing issue. There are things that everyone would be interested in working on together already, like bringing back first grade. The idea of bringing students back, even at six-foot, we haven’t been given a role in addressing that. Communication has gotten a little better in terms of at least naming the shared interests, but the information around the transmission of the virus has been too limited. There’s not enough sharing of information about staffing, how many classrooms have to be remote, quarantining.

The ironic problem of this situation––someone said it at the meeting––is that one of the reasons we’ve had such little transmission is that we’ve been so careful. The BEU is looking for a way of being really careful about tracking the data going forward. How many paraprofessionals should be helping students with special needs, but instead are acting as substitute teachers? How many teachers are out sick? Otherwise, everyone is fighting on social media with the same old generalized arguments but no one is really saying, “Are the schools functioning?”

We’re going into negotiations next week for the larger contract, and there is a hope that it will get done. Everybody is exhausted and stressed and strained, but there are some fundamentals that have to be addressed and that is a living wage for paraprofessionals. We’re talking about a $15 wage, compared with $7. That is double, that is a big difference. We’re talking about radical change.

What do you think are the next steps?

I think the question comes back to where I started. Respect is demonstrated through giving people not just an ability to cry out into the wind––speech with no power is desperation. You don’t want to sit around for hours crying and then have someone tell you, “Thank you for sharing.” You want what you say to have impact. So, I think the joint labor management is key to trust and real good intentions. I have nothing but trust that BSC members have real respect for teachers and genuinely care––I really do believe that and I see evidence for it––so what we need is an institutional means for educators to have an impact that they can depend on.