New York art teachers fight for better working conditions

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Since the outbreak of COVID-19, New York City public schools have been in crisis. School closures, in-person classes, mask requirements and curriculum controversies are just some of the issues facing the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which represents approximately 75,000 teachers across New York state. Despite these issues, UFT President Michael Mulgrew has remained silent and often quashed dissent from school staff most affected.

For this reason, members of a coalition within the UFT have recently put aside their differences to challenge the leadership. Under the name United for Change, they nominated representatives from each opposition faction to run for the executive board and won seven seats in a recent election. The largest of these gatherings, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), brings together educators who advocate transformative pedagogy and are redefining creative action as a means of fostering dialogue about democracy and inequality.

We spoke to three MORE public school art teachers — Olivia Swisher, Jake Jacobs, and their colleague who identified as Kaiser — about the importance of their work and activism within the city’s public school system. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Hyperallergic: Can you tell me about your experiences as an educator in the city?

Olivia Swisher: I worked as an art teacher at Sunset Park Middle School for three years and before that as an educator at the Jewish Museum and the Guggenheim. I switched from museum education because the working conditions there were actually much worse.

Emperor: The working conditions alone can be a whole worm, right? I currently work in the Lower East Side teaching preschool through fifth grade. I previously worked at a public middle school and before that at a charter school.

Jake Jacobs: I’m a middle school art teacher in District 11 of the Bronx. This is my fifth school in 14 years. I am always a champion of the arts and urge school leaders to use every opportunity we have to bring art to children, especially to students in after-school programs and summer schools, which New York City does not typically offer.

Members of MORE at a demonstration in Manhattan

H: What working conditions made you decide to join MORE?

K: I searched for MORE without knowing it existed. I was already a member of the UFT, but was dissatisfied. Of course I’m very thankful to have a union, and a powerful one at that, but I was confused as to where to find the people who would stand up for things we really need, like small class sizes and anti-racism education.

YY: If you look at the average spend per person, there are large disparities between high and low spenders in the state and in the city of New York – differences between children in the South Bronx and the Upper East Side or Park Slope, where there are more privileges and better things gives housing. I was drawn to the caucus to fill those gaps, hire art teachers to fill shortages, develop internships for high school seniors to become student teachers, and fill in art teachers lost through attrition.

Operating system: I think community is very important especially for us. We are often the only art teachers in our respective buildings; this can be really isolating, especially in a new place. During my first year as an apprentice in the city, I was working without a contract and didn’t even know it. I taught too many consecutive lessons and my classes were way too big. This often happens to art teachers – the tour brings everyone into our rooms for programming issues.

Although we have a union, these issues are not enforced at school level. As a new teacher, unless your chapter leader is very direct with you, you could spend your entire teaching career not knowing much about it.

H: What other types of problems do you encounter within the union, particularly from people at the top?

Animation of Olivia Swisher projected onto a building near City Hall in 2020 as part of MORE’s collaboration with The Illuminator

YY: The main caucus in power is called Unity and enforces leadership from the top down. Mulgrew is a very strong leader with notoriety and connections throughout state and federal politics. The leadership has hotlines to the governor’s office, the city council, and the state legislature; they carry a lot of weight. Unity has been in power for more than 60 years, and Mulgrew refuses to engage in debates, probably because it would give opponents credit. They run it like politicians instead of educators.

We try to speak up for the children who have no voice – underserved families, undocumented people who cannot vote, anyone whose voice is suppressed in this way. There are poverty-related reasons why families may not be as involved, attend meetings, attend events, communicate with politicians or advocate for politics, so MORE tries to be that voice.

H: We hear a lot about art workers’ and teachers’ unions these days, but art educators in particular are often relegated to second-rate issues. Does leadership ever do anything to address this?

K: Not really. There are always backroom deals without any working teachers in the room. An art teacher’s concerns may not be considered at all. Leadership will announce new COVID guidelines that don’t take our jobs into account at all. You can read the attribution 18 times and realize that you are not represented at all because you were never allowed to enter the room.

Operating system: Art teachers usually teach the whole school, every child enrolled. We have the most attention along with physical education teachers and performing arts teachers. If I got COVID I risk closing the whole school – literally because I teach everyone. We are often left out of the equation and rarely feel represented because we are lumped together with other teachers and our needs are overlooked.

H: Overall, I think a bottom-up approach would benefit everyone involved. Given that organizing influences your pedagogy around arts in the classroom, how would you say?

Operating system: Art is about humanity and society – our connections to history and our environment. The pandemic opened up how we need to talk about human-centric processes that are moving forward. Previously, I adhered to competency-based curricula, such as shading, figure drawing, and painting on a value scale. Now my teaching focuses on community and the way artists respond to society and create new worlds. I’ve been told that it feels more like a civics class.

K: This year I switched to a choice-based model instead of the teacher only presenting projects. Rather than having each student work on the same assignment, we’ll talk about different types of mediums, techniques, and themes that you can express in art. Then each student develops their own idea and carries it through from start to finish, learning to accept feedback and deciding when to call it complete. I see a parallel in terms of who owns the agency. In a traditional classroom, I do most of the creating; When I have the idea and tell them how to do it, I see the students break away as a result.

Of course you can teach traditionally in an engaging way, but I think there’s something really powerful when students take the process into their own hands. The same is true for teachers – if we had more ownership of our process, there would be more investment and enthusiasm to advocate for what we really need.

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