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Good, Old Fashioned Organizing

Louisiana teachers banded together and got the board to listen.

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By 9 p.m., when Carole White began telling the school board her story, the crowd of 100 teachers watching the hearing since 5 p.m. had dwindled, but the 12 board members were paying close attention. After months of organizing and newspaper publicity, they knew the issue before them wasn’t going away.

White, who now heads the East Baton Rouge Association of Educators, spoke of the time a special education teacher came to her almost in tears. During a rainy-day indoor recess, two of her young students had announced they were playing teacher. She expected them to go write on the blackboard, but instead they sat down at a computer and started pecking away at the keys.

“This is what teachers do,” they explained.

“All these students see is the back of their teacher’s head,” White told the board. That’s because she spent her time fighting with software the district had bought for writing Individual Education Plans while a paraprofessional taught her class.

The district’s special education managers had bought software that turned out to be a beta-version—not finished, not tested, and not working.

“It was always crashing and you would lose everything you had put in and have to start all over again,” recalls Cheryl Gray. “And it required you to use the Internet, but many of the classrooms were not wired for Internet.”

“People were crying in school because supervisors would threaten to fire them or write them up if they didn’t get their IEPs done on time, but that was impossible,” says Kay Baucum. “You’d say, ‘Do you mean I’m supposed to sit here and not teach the children?’ And they’d answer, ‘Whatever you have to do.’ But they also said nobody should be working on this during class time!”

White and other association activists decided to file a group grievance. It wasn’t easy getting people to join. “People would work and work and moan and complain, but they didn’t want to put their names down because they were scared,” says Baucum.

“Most of the teachers were women and they’d been taught it was unladylike to complain,” adds White. But it offended their sensibilities even more to be robbed of time with their students because of faulty software, so in time 70 teachers from a dozen schools signed on.

Finally, they got their hearing before the school board. Administrators claimed the problems were the teachers’ fault—that they didn’t know how to use computers. So the teachers brought in a computer expert who, over the course of an hour and a half, laid out his professional opinion: the fault laid with the software, not the teachers.

After seven hours of testimony and tense cross-examination, the school board invited White and Baucum to serve on a committee to look for better software. That search never happened, but administrators stopped harassing teachers and got the software company to fix the program so it became, if not convenient, at least workable. Most of the administrators involved have since left.

But in the three years since the hearing, the program has been modified and teachers say it’s backsliding. It’s extremely cumbersome and it doesn’t allow for real individualization. “Everybody’s looks the same,” says Baucum. “I don’t know why they think it’s an ‘individual’ education plan.”

The teachers are starting to talk about going back for another round. “We’ll first go to the [new administrators] in special ed, but if that doesn’t work, we’ll file another grievance,” says White. “I think they will hear us. I think they’ve learned we are not whiners and complainers—we want to do a good job.”

Read next story: A Painful Mistake

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