Q & A with NewTLA co-founder, Mike Stryer

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In recent months, a number of teacher-led groups have begun to gain national attention. Looking to change the union from within, a slew of reform-minded teachers won seats in the Los Angeles teachers union's representative body. This movement calls itself NewTLA, a spin on the traditional union's moniker, UTLA. NCTQ spoke with NewTLA co-founder Mike Stryer about his revolution from within.

1. Why did you form NewTLA?

Simply put, NewTLA was formed to provide an organized voice within the union to the silent majority of teachers who seek a more progressive, forward-looking union leadership and focus. Often frustrated with the union's knee-jerk opposition to much-needed reforms, about 85 classroom teachers (many without any previous union involvement) got elected to the union's official governing body, the UTLA House of Representatives.

2. Who does your message most resonate with?

Newer teachers joined NewTLA out of frustration with the quality-blind criteria in determining layoffs and displacements. Experienced teachers joined NewTLA to encourage our union to put more emphasis on meaningful professional development. Other teachers joined NewTLA because of concerns with the inconsistent quality of teachers in our district. Whatever the particular reason for joining, teachers in NewTLA are united in our passion for education and a genuine desire to more effectively meet our students' needs.

At the same time, our message has resonated exceptionally well with parents. Many parents in L.A. perceive our union as obstructionist, particularly around teacher quality. Parents throughout L.A. have been really excited about the opportunity to work with a group of teachers open to meaningful change.

3. How has your movement been received among UTLA leadership? (both outgoing and incoming)

While the outgoing leadership was initially apprehensive about NewTLA, it has recognized the fact that the union must broaden the participation of its members. NewTLA has played a vital role in expanding participation beyond the traditional set of activists.

The incoming citywide leadership has shown genuine openness to the efforts and ideas of NewTLA. While NewTLA members and the incoming leadership may not see eye-to-eye on several key issues, the incoming leadership has encouraged participation by NewTLA members on important governance issues and policy-making. Time will tell. But there is reason for cautious optimism about the direction of our union.

4. Why did you decided you stay a part of the UTLA and not form a separate union or professional association? What aspects of unions do you find most relevant to teachers?

Instead of considering alternative structures, those of us who founded NewTLA saw a tremendous opportunity for changing the direction of the existing union. The fact is that only a very small percentage of teachers are actually involved in the development of union policies and priorities. When I say small, I mean as little as 1-2%. Essentially, 98% of the members are only involved peripherally with the union when they vote, pay dues, or attend occasional rallies.

Unfortunately, some of the strongest teachers have stayed away from any involvement with the union either because they are 100%- focused on the classroom or because they felt powerless to effect key changes in the direction of the union. By forming NewTLA, we hope to provide for an effective voice of reform-minded educators demanding excellence of ourselves, of school-site administrators, and of district policy-makers.

5. What change would you most like to see in the new bargaining agreement being negotiated?

Bearing in mind that certain things can only be changed through the state education code, the new collective bargaining agreement must include a new, revamped evaluation system. A well-developed system, with multiple evaluation points, is a linchpin for so many needed educational reforms.

While everyone agrees that the current "evaluation" system is broken, there is a lot of work needed to successfully negotiate a new evaluation system. A perfect evaluation system may be impossible, but this shouldn't stop us from working quickly towards a better system.