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You’d be forgiven for thinking Lindsay Burningham became the new president of the teachers union because she likes a good tussle.
Conflict, and pushing for benefits of the 8,000 local members of San Diego Education Association, is the very essence of the job.
But on Monday as she met with reporters, Burningham’s new role belied her cautious and low-key demeanor. She seemed uneasy as a photographer scuttled around for the right shot. “I didn’t know this was going to be a whole photo shoot,” she said.
This is only Burningham’s third week at SDEA headquarters after 10 years teaching kindergarteners and first-graders at a Scripps Ranch elementary school. At 34, Burningham is the youngest president SDEA has ever had.
Burningham replaces Bill Freeman, who has gone back to the classroom after serving two consecutive two-year terms – the max for an SDEA president.
Burningham started as a union representative at her elementary school, and then worked her way up the leadership ranks: She was elected board member, then secretary. In 2012, she was elected vice president, beating out former president and polarizing activist Camille Zombro by more than 100 votes.
And earlier this year, Burningham beat out Shane Parmely, who also represents a more aggressive faction of SDEA. The union’s choice of Burningham over Parmely for president meant it’d be staying the more moderate, Freeman-esque course.
In the end, being an effective president doesn’t come down to who makes most noise, but who gets the most done. Knowing how to choose battles – holding tight to the non-negotiables while being open to compromise on the fine print – is the art of the job.
For the past three months, the union has been negotiating its next contract with the school district. The last one ended on June 30, and the goal is to reach a new agreement this fall. Until then, teachers will continue to work under the terms of the previous contract.
SDEA Executive Director Tim Hill sat in and shared some thoughts as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Taking on this leadership position for the teachers union, you must have realized that you were putting yourself in the line of fire, so to speak. Did that give you any reservations about becoming president?
Lindsay Burningham: I got into the teaching profession to teach. And I didn’t step into this leadership position because I like conflict. But I also realize that sometimes it takes conflict to make necessary changes.
Someone once told me that teaching is one way to impact students’ lives, but becoming SDEA president is a way to impact even more students.
What do you see as the role of teaching evaluations?
LB: The role of the evaluation is to give the teachers an opportunity to grow as educators, highlighting their strengths and also giving them the chance to hone their teaching skills.
The evaluation is a constructive model to help teachers grow. It takes a lot of research and work to develop the right evaluations.
Revamping teaching evaluations seems to tie into the Vergara trial, which has really been a hot topic lately.
LB: Yes, the Vergara trial has been a hot topic, but I don’t think evaluations were really a part of it. One of the arguments in the trial was that teachers were given permanent status too early, but the probationary period is not tied to teaching evaluations.
Extending the probationary period doesn’t do anything to help teachers. In fact, it does the opposite – it keeps prospective teachers from wanting to be in the profession.
One of the reasons I think teaching evaluations are part of this conversation is because Vergara plaintiffs argued that ineffective teachers are disproportionately found at low-income schools. But without an evaluation system that allows us to say who’s an effective teacher, and who’s not, it’s harder to make that point.
Tim Hill: Right. We have schools where 90 percent of teachers have three years or less of experience. But Vergara doesn’t do anything to address the fundamental questions about why that’s happening. Why are teachers leaving those schools? Changing teaching evaluations wouldn’t address that.
Then why do you think we have those schools, where as you say, most of the teachers are inexperienced? Do think it could be a result of the post-and-bid (seniority-based transfer) system?
TH: You’d really have to look at each reason for why those schools are hard to staff. It could come down to something like housing, because many of the teachers who work in high-poverty schools don’t live in those neighborhoods, and they want to work close to home.
LB: For the past several years, transfers have really been determined by budget cuts, and where teachers have been placed after they were excessed. There really hasn’t been a lot of voluntary movement for the past four or five years.
But when it comes to transfers, I would rather have a clear process like post-and-bid. At least it’s determined by seniority, which is a fairer way than basing the decision on a subjective measure like teacher performance.
TH: The most important question is to figure out why teachers choose to leave the schools they do. When we look at the schools they leave, what kinds of resources would be needed there to level the playing field? To make them comparable to the schools in La Jolla that have massive school foundations that can pay for the supplemental teachers, or tutors or arts and music programs?
Vergara doesn’t do anything to solve the fundamental problem of inequity. Stripping teachers of due process – which is really what this comes down to – or changing the evaluation system isn’t the answer.
I want to stay on evaluations for a minute. If the current evaluation system is designed to offer teachers feedback, but doesn’t allow us to say who’s effective and who isn’t, then why not develop a system that would allow us to do both?
TH: Have you actually read the teaching evaluation we use? It’s pretty comprehensive, and there’s already a place for principals doing the evaluation to mark a teacher as “satisfactory,” “requires improvement” or “unsatisfactory.”
LB: Right. I think our contract outlines pretty clearly that we expect our administrators to make ongoing observations and evaluate teachers on a set schedule.
We have a process that’s outlined, and we work to make sure that process is followed. We can challenge the process, but we can’t challenge the content.
But any evaluation system you create is only as good as the administrator who’s actually doing the evaluation. Whatever system you use, there’s going to be a human being in place making a subjective call. It’s what you do as an administrator and educator that makes it work.
We’re not saying that we’re opposed to any changes to the evaluations, but whatever changes are implemented need to be something we decide together. It can’t be something that’s handed down by one side.
I think that’s a really interesting point, and one that we don’t talk about often. So you’re saying that principals also have to be a part of this conversation, because in a big way evaluation come down to how active of a role they play?
TH: Yes. And just like on any bell curve, where you have all levels of expertise, you have a similar bell curve with principals.
I recently read this interesting article in Salon, written by a high school math teacher. He argued that if we want to attract the best and brightest to the teaching profession, we have to raise teachers’ salaries. But it seems like there would be a better case for raising pay, if the pay was somehow tied to performance. So my question is: What if lacking a system to find the best teachers is part of what keeps teacher salaries low?
LB: I think we’ve talked teaching evaluations in a circle and into the ground. It’s not just the pay that attracts teachers or keeps them in the profession. It’s the respect and resources they have at the schools they teach.
And if pay was tied to student performance, or test scores, I don’t think teachers would risk it. Because so many factors impact learning that have nothing to do with what happens in the classroom – things like poverty and home life.
Don’t get me wrong, competitive pay helps, especially when you consider that San Diego Unified teachers are among the lowest paid in the county. If you look at the our Fight for 5 campaign, and see the things we’re pushing for, pay and benefit increases is one component – but it’s not the only one.
If salary is what attracts people to the teaching profession, those are the ones who leave after a few years and contribute to the high turnover rate. There’s so much more to it when it comes to retaining teachers, things like low class sizes.
At our recent Politifest event, Paula Cordeiro said that the debate over small class sizes is completely misguided, because quality teachers should be able to do good work whether there are 15 kids in a class or 40. What do you think of that argument?
LB: I think it’s 100 percent ridiculous. That argument completely overlooks that a single class can include advanced students and students with special needs, or English-learners.
Will I be a good teacher if I have 40 students in a class? Absolutely, I’ll put 150 percent into it. But I won’t have the same one-one-one time with students as I would if I had a class of 15. I would be a good teacher, but not as great or effective as I am with a lower class size where I have the time to meet the individual needs of my students.
I look at it like this: Would I be a good mother if I had 15 kids? Yes, I’d love them all and care for them the best I could. But I wouldn’t be able to devote the same time or resources to each kid, as if I had only two.
TH: What are Cordeiro’s credentials again?
She’s the dean of University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Educational Sciences.
TH: I think it’s easy to make that comment from the ivory tower of a university. Whereas, I think if you went and asked the teachers actually on the front lines, I bet they would tell you that wasn’t the case.
But I thought Cindy Marten said something similar recently to the U-T’s editorial board, and she’s a former teacher and principal.
LB: She did. And that’s where we came down on her the hardest.
And did she walk that statement back?
LB: Not publicly, but she told us that the statement was part of a larger conversation that needed to be taken in context.
Is there anything else that you’d like me to know, or anything you’d like readers to keep in mind?
I am a big proponent of communication and collaboration. We cannot get anything done if we are not willing to talk and put in the hard work necessary to accomplish things. That does not mean that we will agree with everything the district says or does, but if we are not will to discuss it, it will be challenging to accomplish anything.