Baltimore teachers in yellow T-shirts hold up signs during a recent school board meeting. Their signs in opposition to a school board proposal were adorned with photos of Drake and other pop culture references, an example of what union leaders call a new, more youthful spirit.
Baltimore teachers in yellow T-shirts hold up signs during a recent school board meeting. Their signs in opposition to a school board proposal were adorned with photos of Drake and other pop culture references, an example of what union leaders call a new, more youthful spirit. (Talia Richman/Baltimore Sun)

The teachers showed up at school district headquarters carrying drums, banners and poster board-sized memes that used Internet jokes to call out a policy proposal.

A new wave of young and social-justice-minded teachers swept into Baltimore Teachers Union leadership in May, ousting a longtime incumbent. They promised during the campaign to challenge the status quo and embrace the kind of activist energy that’s increasingly apparent within teachers unions across the country.

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Now was time for their first public fight: The union and its new executive board faced off against the school board over a policy to based teacher evaluations — which are tied to raises — on unannounced observations, rather than planned ones. While it might appear to be an obscure shift, the union said these kinds of observations can be used punitively and would hurt teacher retention; the district argued it’s necessary to glean authentic insights into how teachers work.

The weight this fight carried was evident in the board room, where one union leader urged the board not to push forward with the policy: “Let’s instead stop, take a step back and start over in a new process that will set the standard for our relationship moving forward,” Corey Gaber said. If the board approved the policy over their objections, “What does that tell teachers about what kind of relationship the board and the district wants to have with us?”

An amended version of the policy passed last week. The district made some changes based on the union’s feedback, but there was still disappointment from teachers that it was approved at all.

The fight provided a window into how the new Baltimore Teachers Union operates.

“You’ve got a younger group, a more energetic group,” said teacher’s aide Larry Gaines, who’s worked in the district for nearly two decades.

Diamonté Brown, 37, was elected union president in May, defeating Marietta English, who headed the union for roughly 20 years.

As part of her campaign, Brown pledged to be more transparent and include more voices from the educators in the trenches every day.

Brown says her team is tapping into its relative youth to boost its reach through social media and other means, while also leaning on the experience of older members. The new and veteran board members, though some were on different slates during the election, collaborated to negotiate a recently ratified contract update that had been in the works prior to the leadership turnover.

Nationwide, younger workers are increasing their union membership much more rapidly than those in other age groups. More than 75% of union members added in 2017 are under the age of 35.

“When they came on board, I started getting emails right away. And it wasn’t long after that they said, ‘Put on your fighting clothes because we have an issue.’ ”


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“Younger workers are increasingly likely to be union members, but this is a fairly recent development,” according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Rashi Turniansky, 24, is a first-year teacher who joined in the union’s fight against unannounced formal observations. He says he was inspired by the groundswell of people trying to take action and create change.

To him, it was yet another reflection of how the union is attuned to the needs of people working in classrooms every day. He pointed to another example of when, over the summer, the union raised money and handed out fans to teachers in non-air-conditioned classrooms — ignoring the advice of district officials concerned about electrical overloads.

Gaines, the longtime veteran, also said their new approach and focus on communication has been apparent. He’s receiving much more communication from the union than in the past.

“When they came on board, I started getting emails right away,” he said. “And it wasn’t long after that they said, ‘Put on your fighting clothes because we have an issue.’ ”

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Educators in yellow T-shirts flooded the school board meeting to oppose the policy change. The posters they carried were decorated by photos of the rapper Drake and other pop culture references, with the memes adapted to fit their arguments. The union provided child care for the kids of teachers who were testifying. And they used social media to spread their message and encourage strong participation, from teachers and members of other sympathetic unions in the city.

An amended version, which delayed implementation and called for fewer observations, passed.

Gaber, a member of the executive board, wrote in a Medium blog post that the union should not view the outcome as a total loss. He listed seven positives that came out of their fight, including: “We have learned a tremendous amount about people in power that we did not know before the dialogue and attention we brought to essential subjects in education. This serves to inform our actions moving forward.”

School board chair Linda Chinnia said teachers would be involved in sussing out the policy roll-out, and doesn’t see this first fight as the district and union getting off on the wrong foot. She said she plans to schedule regular meetings with union leaders.

“We’re all going to be learning to work together,” Chinnia said.

Brown says the relationship is that of “critical friends.”

“When we agree on something and feel there’s an opportunity to collaborate, we do,” she said. “When we feel like we need to challenge the district and push back or urge them to make certain decisions, we play that role as well.”

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