Since the outbreak of COVID-19, New York City’s public schools have been in a crisis. School shutdowns, in-person instruction, mask mandates, and curricular controversies are just a few of the problems facing the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which represent about 75,000 teachers throughout New York state. Despite these issues, UFT President Michael Mulgrew has remained silent, often shutting down dissent from the school workers impacted the most.
Because of this, members of a coalition within the UFT recently set aside their differences in an effort to challenge leadership. Under the name United for Change, they are nominated representatives from each opposition caucus to run for the executive board, winning seven seats in a recent election. The largest of these caucuses, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), brings together educators advocating for transformative pedagogies, reframing creative agency as a means of fostering dialogue around democracy and inequality.
We spoke with three public school art teachers from MORE — Olivia Swisher, Jake Jacobs, and their colleague who identified as Kaiser — on the meaning of their labor and activism within the city’s public school system. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hyperallergic: Can you tell me about your experience as an educator in the city?
Olivia Swisher: I have worked as a middle school arts teacher in Sunset Park for three years, and prior to that as an educator at the Jewish Museum and Guggenheim. I switched from museum education because the working conditions there were actually much worse.
Kaiser: Working conditions alone can be a whole can of worms, right? I currently work in the Lower East Side teaching pre-K through fifth grade. Previously, I worked at a public middle school, and at a charter school before that.
Jake Jacobs: I am a middle school art teacher in District 11 of the Bronx. This is my fifth school in 14 years. I always advocate for the arts, pushing principals to take advantage of any opportunities we can give kids art, particularly for students in after-school programs and summer school, which is not something New York City typically offers.
H: What were some of the working conditions that first led you to join MORE?
K: I was looking for MORE without knowing it existed. I was already a member of the UFT but felt dissatisfied. Of course, I am very grateful to have a union, and a powerful one at that, but I was confused about where to find the people standing up for things we really need, like small class sizes and anti-racist education.
JJ: If you look at an average of per-people spending, it masks great inequalities between high and low across New York state and city — disparities between kids in the South Bronx versus the Upper East Side or Park Slope, where there is more privilege and better housing. I was drawn to the caucus as a means of bridging these gaps, as well as recruiting art teachers to fill shortages, developing internships for high school graduates to become student teachers, and replenishing art teachers lost due to attrition.
OS: I think community is really important for us in particular. We are often the only art teachers in our respective buildings; that can be really isolating, especially in a new place. During my first year teaching in the city, I was working out of contract and did not even know. I was teaching too many back-to-back periods, and my classes were way too big. That often happens to art teachers — leadership puts everyone in our rooms because of programming issues.
Even though we have a union, those issues are not enforced at the school level. As a new teacher, unless your chapter leader is very direct with you, you could go your whole teaching career not knowing much about it.
H: What other kinds of problems do you encounter within the union, particularly from people at the top?
JJ: The main caucus in power is called Unity and enforces top-down leadership. Mulgrew is a very strong leader, with name recognition and connections throughout the state and federal politics. Leadership has hotlines to the governor’s office, city council, and state legislature; they carry a great deal of weight. Unity has been in power for more than 60 years, and Mulgrew refuses to have debates, likely because it would give opponents name recognition. They run it like politicians instead of educators.
We try to go to bat for the kids who do not have a voice — underserved families, undocumented people who cannot vote, anyone whose voice is squelched in that way. There are poverty-related reasons families might not be as involved, show up to meetings, participate in events, interface with politicians, or advocate for policy, so MORE tries to be that voice.
H: We hear a lot about art worker and teacher unions nowadays, but art educators specifically are often relegated to secondary concerns. Does leadership ever do anything to address this?
K: Not really. There are always backroom deals happening without any working teachers in the room. The concerns of an art teacher might just not be taken into account at all. Leadership will announce new COVID policies that do not factor in our jobs at all. You can read the writeup 18 times and realize you are not represented at all, because you were never allowed in the room.
OS: Art teachers usually teach the whole school, every child enrolled. We have the most exposure along with physical education and performing arts instructors. If I got COVID, that would run the risk of shutting down the whole school — literally, because I teach everybody. We are often left out of the equation and rarely feel represented, because we get lumped in with other teachers, so our needs get overlooked.
H: Totally, I think a bottom-up approach would benefit everyone involved. Based on that, how would you say that organizing informs your pedagogies around art in the classroom?
OS: Art is about humanity and society — our connections to history and our environments. The pandemic opened up how we need to talk about human-centered processes moving forward. I was previously adhering to skill-based curricula, like shading, figure-drawing, and painting on a value scale. Now, my classroom is centered around the community and the ways artists respond to society and build new worlds. I’ve been told it feels more like a civics class.
K: This year, I switched to a choice-based model, as opposed to the teacher merely introducing projects. Instead of every student working on the same assignment, we talk about different kinds of media, techniques, and subjects that you can express in art. Then, each student generates their own idea and sees it through from start to finish, learning to accept feedback and decide when to call it complete. I see a parallel in terms of who has the agency. In a traditional classroom, I do most of the creating; when I have the idea, and I tell them how to do it, I see students disengage as a result.
Of course, you can teach traditionally in an engaging way, but I think there is something really powerful about students having ownership over the process. The same applies for teachers — if we had more ownership over our process, there would be more investment and excitement in advocating for what we really need.