Paper(work)-thin: I Thought We Were Supposed to be *Teaching*

21 Feb

       Like death, taxes and Randi Weingarten, certain things  will  be with us forever. Teaching will always involve paperwork . But , just as certainly, teaching is not only paperwork. At least it ought not to be.

Our union (UFT)  seemed to “get”  this at one point;  even successfully  pushing for  a safety-valve mechanism  in the 2007 contract to guard against paperwork excess and abuse. (And that’s as it should be. They,  our union leaders, were teachers at one point.  I think. Weren’t they? )  So… what happened?

      I lobbied for *years* to get a  “paperwork reduction” committee established (as per  Art 8-I, Sect. 1. of the NYC UFT contract. BTW, people should actually READ THE LANGUAGE of these  things. They’re chock-full of surprises.) in my district only to be repeatedly stonewalled by the unelected UFT  District Representative  then in charge. When I approached him face to face at the Delegate Assembly… after a number of emails on the topic went unacknowledged…. it was like I was speaking a language other than English.: “PaperWHICH?” “ReductionWHAT?” “CommitteeWHO?!?”

     After the initial shock, ( Someone was actually calling him out about something important !)  he quickly gathered his wits. We didn’t NEED a paperwork reduction committee, he explained. His eyes which darted nervously around the room at first , almost bird-like, now met mine with a dead-on earnestness . The UFT had everything under control. There was a lawsuit making it’s way thru the courts… the outcome of which  would surely end “excessive paperwork” as we then ( This was about 3 years ago, I’d say.) knew it.
     I went home that night and googled every possible phraseology and word-combination  that I thought might elicit a reference to the UFT being involved in  a law suit  —  the subject or object of which was paperwork reduction. Coming up empty, I emailed DR ( “Flash”;  I decided that this one needed a name.) again. No response. ( Don’t these folks know how to click the “reply” button ?)  Metamessage: “Leave me the fuck alone.”
So I left Flash alone.  Maybe I’ll need him someday for something *vital*, I reasoned, not unreasonably. For something URGENT. Better not antagonize him.  Instead, I  continued… as did everyone else in the district…. to spend hour after unnecessary hour  dutifully producing meaningless, superfluous and redundant paperwork for the nightmarishly dysfunctional bureaucratic swamp   that increasingly IS the New York City Department of Education in the second decade of the twenty-first century; the hideous offspring produced by the marriage of two distinct, nominally antagonistic yet depressingly similar first cousins).
     Then… around March 2011…. my writing hand beginning to throb, the fingers on BOTH hands seeming to strike the keyboard with increasing inaccuracy, ( Is this what early carpal tunnel feels like? I fretted uselessly.) I decided to pick-up the paperwork gauntlet once again and give the swamp people one more try. I wrote to the UFT  VP  with jurisdiction over Flash in March of 2011  as follows:

“I’m a Special Ed teacher … and a UFT Delegate.  We are DROWNING in paperwork.  I am told by administrators to anticipate that it will get worse. 
Our contract with the DOE reads as follows:
‘Committees composed equally of representatives of the Board and the Union shall be established at the central , district and division levels to review and reduce unnecessary paperwork required of employees.’ (ARTICLE 8, SECTION I; # 1) 
Is there, in fact, a committee  established ( in my district) as described? If so, when does it meet? Where does it meet? Does it issue minutes or summary reports for public consumption? 
Can I  participate in the activities of the committee(s) ? 
Our District (Rep.) … has not responded to emails pertaining to this topic.
 Again, we are DROWNING in paperwork.
Can you help us?”
     The Veep’s reply was a bit indirect but the upshot was : yes, all districts, including mine, are supposed to have paperwork reduction committees and she would see to it that the District Rep ( i.e. Flash) would take the necessary steps to get this going. 
“About time”, I muttered to myself. The date on the contract is October 2007. We were now in March 2011. But, grateful for the confirmation that I *wasn’t* crazy after all, and that there was at least ONE person in the union hierarchy with whom I could profitably communicate, I looked forward to the chance to participate in a process that promised to free-up more time for the teachers I represented. So that they’d have at least SOME time to actually, you know, *teach*.
     But we weren’t out of the woods yet. ( Are we ever?) If the DOE’s wheels grind notoriously slowly, waiting for the UFT to implement its OWN part of the deal is “like watching (educational) paint dry.” April came and went. As did May. Instinct ( and experience) told me it was time to act.
In June I wrote the UFT Veep as follows:

“It’s been a long time — over two years — since I asked this question originally: ‘Is there an actual paperwork reduction committee in (my district) as described by the contract?’” (Yes, I was back to square one. But at least I was somewhere again.)
The VP replied the same day. It was as if we were communicating for the first time. “I have copied ……. (“Flash”; alas, still my DR); he will give you the updates to the status of the …. paperwork committee.”

     June passed. As did July. Still no sign of life from Flash. On August 21, I wrote the Unity Veep as follows:

“Still haven’t heard from (Flash). In fact, I’ve *never* heard from (Flash), despite the fact that I began asking him about this… at polite but regular intervals … over two years ago.”
(Was there something going on here that no one was telling me? My mind raced. Did Flash even exist? “Getta hold of yourself, pops. You saw him yourself at the DA two years ago. Remember?” )

I talked myself  down but I was getting tired of playing this game. I know in the DOE cultural taboo-hierarchy, going over someone’s head is *way* up there on the gravity scale.  It is… second only perhaps to going public…  the penultimate transgression. Bette Davis, comes to mind all of a sudden: “Men have been hanged for less!” , she screams in All About Eve.
Screw it. I was getting too tired to care anymore. After not hearing back from UFT Veep regarding the apparent disappearance of Flash, I wrote President Mulgrew on Sept 7, 2011 as follows: 
“Perhaps at this point you should intervene. I’ve been trying to get a simple answer to what I thought was a simple question for about three years. The contract says there are “paperwork reduction” committees established at the district level. I’m in District ____. I’d like info re. my committee:

1. When does it meet?

2. Are there minutes from these meetings and can I access same?

3. How can I participate?

Michael, we are  drowning in paperwork. Please help.”
     The next day, I received my first email ever from my new ‘best friend forever’, Flash. 

Hey, guess what?  We’re  setting up a  joint  UFT/DOE paperwork reduction committee . Would I be interested in participating?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: