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Red Herrings

Andrew ChristianI remember taking a class in college. It was called Logic and Rhetoric. I couldn’t possibly understand why I had to take an entire class that revolved around a concept as simple as logic. Needless to say, it was much more complex than I had anticipated. We discussed reasoning, argumentation, and logical fallacies, all of which I remember to this day. I find myself using the principles of this class often when I find myself in a position where people are trying to make an argument or prove a point. Specifically, I found myself in this position last week after hearing many people’s passionate and varied reactions to a recent San Jose Mercury Editorial about our contract negotiations.

If I had to choose who to believe — my fellow teachers and my employer or a journalist who has never set foot in a classroom — the answer is obvious. Yet it was strange for me to see some, not many, but some of our colleagues arguing that there is some cloak-and-dagger conspiracy surrounding bargaining and what a newspaper reporter “knows” versus what we know. Errors, misconceptions, and oversimplifications were printed. If you do not believe me or this statement, there is no reason to read further. If you do not believe me, it will also prove my point that a great fault exists between us as fellow educators and professionals. The editorial that was printed raised eyebrows. It made us wonder if these things were true. It made us question, for at least a second, if we were kept out of the loop. A joint statement from SJTA and SJUSD made it clear we were not. This makes me wonder why anyone would question otherwise.

Some of the issues I heard made me revert to my years as an undergraduate, sitting in an overcrowded theater that was turned into a classroom for my Logic and Rhetoric course. In that class, we would hear a statement and pick apart why it didn’t make sense, why it lacked the logic to validate a certain way of thinking. Last week, I heard accusations of divulging secrets; accusations that were and are entirely baseless and, in reality, red herrings, when it comes to the issue of our contract. There are no secrets. Our bargaining unit doesn’t engage in some secret handshake with Superintendent Matthews before stepping into the bargaining room. They don’t laugh out loud at the water cooler joking about how they “duped” teachers.

Yet I heard one member state that as of right now he would vote “No” on the contract. Again, the logic in my head clicked in: We have no contract on which to vote. We don’t even have contract language to debate. But this member had already convinced himself to vote no on a nightmare contract that he constructed based on a Mercury News editorial. I started to think of phantoms or monsters under the bed. How can we fear what does not exist? Why is fear, not trust, our first reaction?

I was at a conference once and had an experience that I still remember vividly to this day. I was participating in a group exercise about alternative compensation. The leader of the exercise put a piece of tape down the middle of the room and posed statements with which we would either agree or disagree and asked us to stand on the appropriate side of the tape. An idea came up about whether you would give up tenure to make $100,000 a year. I was one of three who went to the agree side. Maybe it was me wanting to play devil’s advocate, but what ensued was a heated discussion with fingers pointed my way…

“You don’t understand.”

“You don’t know what it was like back then.”

“What if you were fired because you complained your room was too cold?”

“Young people don’t get it. That’s whats wrong with you.”

“One day, you’ll change your mind.”

What made those people disagree with the statement was an emotional reaction based on fear. I do not doubt that many people have had negative experiences in the past with the union and our district. I do not doubt that these experiences have shaped their opinions and how they may think about certain things. I do not doubt that those experiences are valuable and important. However, I do doubt that it is a good idea to let our emotions and past experiences dominate the decisions we make now and in the future. The world is a different place. Things change. New leadership moves organizations in new directions.

The people in that conference room did not trust that my opinions reflected best intentions. They assumed that, because I had a different view of the world, my opinion was not valid. I was somehow untrustworthy; an enemy and not a peer. In that moment, I felt like many of our students, because I did understand. I do not need to be 30-year veteran to understand the struggles unions have gone through. I do not need to have taken part in a strike to understand what that meant and the effects it had. I do know what it was like “back then.” And I refused to believe I would be fired for complaining that it is too cold in my classroom. (Whether the heat ever got turned on is another story, one on which I think we can all agree.)

What my fellow teachers in that group exercise didn’t know was that my grandfather served as President of his Letter Carriers union; that my grandmother was a union employee for a beverage distributor; that I was was a member of UFCW Local 5 in high school. But their lack of trust and emotional reaction validated only their experiences and disregarded mine.

Later on, in the dinner line, it got personal. One of the more vocal teachers told me that I don’t believe in due process, all the while nudging and joking with another teacher. I had already forgotten much of what was said during the exercise, but at that moment, it all came rushing back and solidified like cement in my mind. I wanted to say that the reason why young teachers do not get involved in the union is because of people like you. The problem with public education is people like you. People like you keep the profession from moving forward. People like you refuse to trust anyone, and as a result, no one listens to or cares what you have to say. People like you are bullies who degrade people, conversations, and ideas. Of course, I did not say any of those things. I gave an awkward smile, put some fruit salad on my plate, and remembered that this a person who has strong opinions based on experiences from her life. Just as my opinions are based on my experiences. If I’d said any of those things, I would have sound just as fearful and judgemental as her and the others who’d questioned my loyalty to the teaching profession.

It’s easy to allow our emotions to drive our thinking. As teachers, we battle this every day with our students. We wish that they could have the foresight make logical decisions, even though they still have much to learn from their life experiences. I can’t tell you the number of times my father would ask me, “What were you thinking? Were you thinking before you did that?” Of course, the answer was no. I was a child. But I am not longer that child. None of us are, and there is no excuse for us to engage in what we scold our children for doing.

Everyone and everything is not working against us. In fact, like our students, we are surrounded by people who want to help us. People who want to make our lives better, more meaningful, and easier. People who want to make our students’ experiences in school better than they could imagine. People who want to support us and empower us to educate, inspire, and change lives through public education.

This is my plea to you: Please do not think that any of your fellow teachers want anything less, whether they’re a bargaining team member, a representative, an SJTA president, or anything else. We are progressive. We believe in the crazy idea that we should constantly try to be better. We are too busy changing lives to trust a newspaper over our own colleagues. Where would that leave us as professionals? Teaching in isolation, locking our doors, waiting for the bell to escape home? That is unsustainable and pushes us further apart. On this much I think we can all agree. It’s logical to move forward, to try something new, to trust that we all are striving to give our members and our students opportunities that they have never had before.

Looking back, I realize why I was made to take the Logic and Rhetoric course. The foundation of our democracy is an honest, open discourse. It is vital for people in any organization or association to solve problems in a logical way. I do not need to tell you that there are problems in our district. These problems include compensation, the work day, and evaluations, all of which affect teachers and indirectly, our students. We should not let the red herrings of our past experiences, our opinions about certain people, or misconceptions and fears affect our logical decisions. The contract will be delivered to you in the spring. You will have the opportunity to read it and make a decision at that time. But please, make an educated, rational, and logical decision. Change is indeed scary and difficult, but we cannot accept the status quo. We must challenge ourselves to do something new and different. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with this…

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

– Steve Jobs

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