Randi Weingarten: 'Teaching Is the Hardest Job on Earth'
Cornell Alumni Magazine: After Cornell and law school, you worked for a big Manhattan firm, but then you went to work in Brooklyn as a teacher.
Randi Weingarten: That was the best job of my life. I loved my kids. I loved being a social studies teacher.
CAM: Teachers don't seem to be feeling much love these days. Why not?
'The newest silver bullet is: the teacher can do it all. Yes, we need to have well-prepared teachers. But if someone is hungry coming to school, or needs glasses and can't see a blackboard, we must deal with that as well.'RW: Our critics try to create a false choice between adults and kids. But all you have to do is spend 3.5 nanoseconds with teachers to know it is false. Teachers go into teaching because they want to make a difference in the lives of children. I'm not saying that all teachers are the same, or all teachers are good, but they go into teaching to make a difference.
CAM: Why do teachers need unions?
RW: To provide a voice for them and to get them the tools and conditions to do a good job.
CAM: What's behind what you've called the "relentless vilification" of unions?
RW: You have two things going on at the same time. First, fewer and fewer people are in unions, so there aren't the personal stories about how a union helped a mom or a dad or a grandpa or a grandma become part of the middle class or fight injustice. The second issue is that American workers are hurting. People are fearful. They wonder why others still have their rights, and they don't.
CAM: Can unions survive in this new environment?
RW: This is not simply a matter of surviving in this climate. My critics would love it to be that I am reacting to them. My frustration is that they have framed the agenda in such a negative way. The Michelle Rhees of the world want to shift all the responsibility for education onto the backs of individual teachers. Although I believe that teachers are really important, I don't believe they are the only or most essential ingredient in education.
CAM: Should teachers be evaluated based on how much their students improve on tests?
RW: This notion that you can evaluate teachers on one piece of data doesn't make sense, since teachers are not in control of all of the variables. At the same time, what my members and I were saying for years is that we shouldn't be responsible for any of it—and that's wrong, too. We should have an evaluation system that focuses on, "What have I taught, and what have kids learned?"
CAM: Can you endorse changes in discipline or evaluations without having backlash from the rank and file saying you're selling them out?
RW: In a big organization there are always going to be people who say you're a sellout. You have to spend time convincing people that what you are trying to do is good for people and teachers.
CAM: Can a good or great teacher, particularly in an inner-city area, overcome broken homes, street violence, and missing or indifferent parents?
RW: There's one study that says an individual teacher can trump all, and that study has a lot of holes and problems. Lots of studies say that teachers have a role in student achievement—but so do poverty and other variables in a student's life. I don't think this is an either/or situation.
CAM: Do the reformers expect too much from teachers?
RW: The newest silver bullet is: the teacher can do it all. Yes, we need to have well-prepared teachers. But if someone is hungry coming to school, or needs glasses and can't see a blackboard, ultimately we must deal with that as well. You need a collaborative environment where we're all working together to ensure student achievement.
CAM: You've been talking a fair amount about collaboration. But back when you were in New York City negotiating contracts with mayors, you weren't exactly known as Miss Congeniality.
RW: I've found over the course of twenty-five years that the better way to improve schools is through a collaborative, not a combative, approach. Now, sometimes you have to fight for your principles. But you have to constantly look for common ground.
CAM: Movie critics said you were cast as a villain or even a "foaming satanic beast" in Waiting for Superman. What did you think of the documentary?
RW: If you look at the box office results, people did not go see the movie. And when you talked to parents and teachers around the country, they wondered why it was so misleading. I understand why individual parents are trying to do the best for their kids, and they have every right to find the best circumstances for them. Every parent does. But what I wonder about that movie is why not one public school was featured—not one place where a union had worked with an employer to make a school great. So it was very misleading. It pulls at the heartstrings because of the kids. But balanced and fair, it is not.
CAM: Were you portrayed fairly?
RW: I speak in paragraphs, not sound bites— good, bad, or indifferent. So when my interviews in the movie were cut and used in a certain way, with eerie music, people can reach their own conclusions.
CAM: Were you sorry to see Fenty lose and Rhee resign?
RW: I think Vince Gray will be a great mayor. We were actively involved in the campaign. He won the primary decisively because people didn't like the way Fenty ran the city. There's a difference between believing in "my way or the highway" and being respectful. Michelle Rhee will say collaboration is overrated. I say that you have to convince people who are engaged in this work that what you're doing is important. It is about respecting others.
CAM: What do you make of her new organization, Students First?
RW: Ultimately you can't create a conflict situation that says you're either about the kids or the teachers. Teachers are about the kids, and the unions are about helping teachers help kids. So ultimately we have two different views of how you take a system from where we are now to a knowledge economy. And my view is that you do this through working together—taking what works, sustaining it, and scaling it up.
CAM: When Rhee announced Students First, you wished her well and urged cooperation. Have you gotten any response?
RW: No. Absolutely not.
CAM: One thing you hear from many teachers and parents is that a big part of the problem is unmotivated students. Is there a secret to motivating kids?
RW: Teaching is the hardest job on Earth. A classroom teacher is managing twenty to thirty youngsters in various stages of development. You have to be Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, and Tony Soprano all wrapped up in one.
CAM: How do you feel about the Teach for America program as a route into education?
RW: Alternative certification routes have their place. Are they better than a good teacher's college? No. In terms of Teach for America, the participants don't feel very prepared and many of them leave teaching within a couple of years. And the reason that a lot of education types have been negative about it is because we think teaching shouldn't be a stepping stone to something else.
CAM: Why are Finland and so many other countries ahead of the U.S in the latest international study of student performance?
RW: They respect teachers. They create a national curriculum that people work on and make better. They prepare teachers, and they are very selective in who becomes a teacher. They give the teachers the tools they need. There's real respect.
CAM: Teachers' unions are under intense fire, and you have a very intense job. How long do you see yourself doing it?
RW: I don't have a personal timeline about the AFT, but my view is every single day there is an urgency to get something done. We have to help our schools help kids become ready for the knowledge economy and become productive citizens who understand and cherish our democracy. That's a big job, but teachers will lead the way.
Bill Sternberg '78 majored in American studies and was an editor of the Daily Sun. He is currently deputy editorial page editor at USA Today. He is co-author of Feeding Frenzy: The Inside Story of Wedtech, has written for the Atlantic and other publications, and is a member of the Cornell Alumni Magazine Committee.