PRENOTE:  Some comments have been added at the very end of the Oct 8 post about Gaza.  Here.  I expect to do a followup post on this topic on Nov.. 4.  Your contribution is solicited.


In a couple of months I’ll mark 24 years retired after a 36 year career in public education.  Nonetheless, yesterday, as has been fairly common for me in my retired years, I went to the morning sessions of the “2023 MEA conference”  (at River Centre in St. Paul).  (Here’s the Minneapolis Star tribune article: MEA Conf Star Trib Oct 20 2023).

“MEA”  is such a tradition in Minnesota that the third Thursday in October is always the start of “MEA weekend”, a no-school event for kids, as hard to dislodge as Thanksgiving and other similar holidays.

“MEA” for the past 25 years has been a program of Education Minnesota, the merged organization (1998) which previously had been two competing teacher unions, MEA and MFT.  The name “MEA weekend” survived – more so public tradition than anything else.  I noticed that officially, in the program, that”MEA” means  “Minnesota Educator Academy”  – (called “MEA Conference”. on the cover of the union’s Minnesota Educator Oct – Nov issue).  Words…Acronyms….

For much of my career and 100 years before the annual gathering was called the “teachers convention”.   In more recent years, including in my career, it has become recognized there are many teachers in schools, which include folks like cooks, custodians, secretaries etc.  “School” is all of the children and adults assembled – a place for kids to become adults, with abundant adult role models.

There was a large menu of choices yesterday.

I can only speak about the five persons I heard.  There were many choices.  It was an excellent day.  Click on the names for more about each of those I heard.

Monica Byron, vice-president of Ed MN welcomed us.   She acknowledged this was the first such speech she’d given to such a group.   Personally I thought this comment added a great deal to otherwise very well prepared remarks.  I would bet all of us in the hall could remember our own first, among many firsts in our own lives!

Monica introduced Michael Houston, MEA’s 59th Teacher of the Year, who gave an inspiring talk.

Keynoter was Brittany Wagner, one of the main stars of the Netflix series “Last Chance U”.  She was an outstanding  motivational speaker.

After her speech I caught Brittany and Michael (both at right).  Both spring from very ordinary roots, like we do:

Brittany Wagner and Michael Houston. St. Paul Oct 20, 2023

I had two other learning experiences Thursday.

I sat in on the session led by Evan Rosenthal: “Exploring Gender: Helping Cisgender Teachers Support Transgender Students and Staff.”  The link below Evan’s name is a YouTube video he presented to a group of Dentists.  It is definitely the same Evan I saw on Thursday, and the content is similar.  I specifically chose this particular workshop, and the interactions with the group in the audience were very meaningful.

Finally, As I entered the exhibit area Thursday morning, a table attracted my interest.  A teacher, Blair Clinton was selling his book “Memoirs of a Mediocre Teacher“.  I bought the book, and I think I’m going to find it worthwhile.  Blair has been teaching for over 20 years, and he’s a reading interventionist in a twin cities metropolitan school district.  Like very teacher, he has his own personal story, and my guess is that most of us who have ever taught have had lots of experience of feeling mediocre!  Things in school don’t always go perfectly!

A final thought: Most of the presenters yesterday noted the influence of at least one teacher in their career trajectory. It occurred to me yesterday, and has occurred to me often over the years, that every teacher (regardless of title: parent, co-workers, etc.) inevitably and often without knowing it has a particularly memorable impact on someone in his or her orbit.  I’ve thought often of these teachers in my own life.  Even a negative experience with a teacher can ultimately have a positive outcome in the long run.

Give it some thought.

Thanks, Education Minnesota.

POSTNOTE Oct 22:  I noted with interest a column by retired Community College history teacher Chuck Chalberg in today’s Minneapolis StarTribune opinion section.  Chalberg apparently retired about 2010, and is about my age, and has written frequently from his point of view.  He would have been a long-time member of MEA/Education Minnesota, but he is apparently no fan of public education and teachers unions.  I found a most interesting commentary about him on-line, which includes within a link to a talk he gave in South Dakota some years ago.  You can read it here.

I have a very different point of view: public school reflects all the imperfections of society in general, and is therefore a crucial platform for young people of all abilities and disabilities to prepare for adulthood.

My parents were career public school teachers, both beginning with country schools about 1929.  Several aunts and uncles were career teachers.  My parents entire career was in a state where teachers had no rights, and their salaries and working conditions reflected that, and my siblings and I saw the downside of that arrangement.  My parents certainly had contracts, a key provision that their contracts were annual, renewed at the discretion of the local school board.

Personally, six of my school years were in Catholic elementary school; I taught junior high school for 9 years, 8 in Minnesota, then represented public school teachers for 27 years, all in Minnesota.  Nine grandkids have spent all or much of their school years in public schools.  One daughter is a middle school principal in a large suburban middle school; another is full-time long term substitute in another middle school.

Is public education perfect?  Absolutely not.  Is there a better alternative?  I think not.  In the end, all of us citizens are in the same kettle.  Perhaps you can delay your childs exposure to the real world, but that is always temporary.  We swim or sink together.

As to politics, the teachers union is not in thrall to any political party; its interest, however, is in good public policy for public education, generally.

Chalberg’s commentary can be read here: Chalberg Star Trib Oct 22 23.  Here’s something he wrote in 2010, at about the end of his career as a teacher.  Here are some comments shared between friends James Klein and Dick Bernard on the topic of public education and unions:Jim Klein on public education and unions October 24, 2023   (The beginning of this link is Jim’s comment in the on-line comments section below.  The link includes more comments from Jim and myself.)

ADDENDA: Brief Essay on School and Community, by Dick Bernard, 2006: Community by Dick Bernard 2006.  Positive qualities of educators identified by teachers at a workshop in the late 1990s: Qualities of Educators.

COMMENTS (more at end of post): 

from Fred: Sounds as if you had a fine time at MEA. The Diary of a Mediocre Teacher sounds interesting.

from Norm:  Thanks for your analysis of what school is actually like.  That is, not every student is well behaved and follows the rules.  Not every student is there to learn although many are.  Not every parent is supportive of what the school is doing with their child, nor does every parent even care what is happening with their child when he/she is in school. or (fill-in-the-blanks).

In many ways, that mixture of the interest levels of the students in the public school system are in some respects just a microcosm of society at large in many ways.
So, I suspect, that the purpose of Moms for Liberty and those kinds of groups who want to interfere with the teaching in public schools is to make sure that kids are only taught what they themselves are comfortable with in their limited view of the world.
That is really concerning to me.  Hopefully, the results that will become known on November 8th will not show large inroads onto the school boards by the MAGA nuts.



6 replies
  1. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Thanks for your attendance and commentary regarding MEA. I so admire folks who continue to make good things happen in the classroom. Teachers, staff and students need our support now more than ever. We need to become a nation that truly values education. Giving priority to best practices in education will serve to make our democracy stronger.

  2. Lef
    Lef says:

    I just read the Chalberg piece, not sure where to start it has so many straw men. The majority of challengers in school boards across the country are in fact what he says they arent…most of the time when it quacks and walks like a duck it really is a duck. Then it sure is hypocritical to bemoan the supposed left wing takeover of education since the 60s without also mentioning the erosion of unions and membership since the late 70s and early 80s, which goes hand in hand with more income inequality and gerrymandering and minority rule aided by archaic constitutional structures. And that doesnt mention the majority of the religious establishment politicizing everything, and the anti-majoritarian re alignment of the federal judiciary accomplished by one side and its acolytes in religion, conservative billionaire funded

    • dickbernard
      dickbernard says:

      More from lef: I think the MEA and teachers unions arent perfect, and they arent always in the right, but they protect a cherished and difficult profession.

      Interesting there was a wry observation in the LTE of the Strib of someone saying Muslim critics of curriculum and books in public and charter
      schools (which allow opt out for parental reasons) demanding wholesale abandonment of these things which discuss equality and acceptance for
      LGBTQ kids and citizens is a bit hypocritical given the exclusionary prejudice Muslims receive and continue to receive in the USA, the writer
      wonders why the lack of empathy for another excluded group …..
      I subscribe to the theory that the experience of WW2 when people of various stratas of income and society where put together
      was a good thing..it encourages consensus and common purpose. the 70s and 80s blew that apart…..charter schools, open enrollment, home schooling
      that all is deleterious to that core value of public education in my opinion.

      To Let from Dick: I especially subscribe to the last portion of your comment. Frequently over the years I’ve mused about the importance of dialogue. The earliest one I’ve come across is in 2010: https://thoughtstowardsabetterworld.org/266-dick-bernard-moving-towards-rationality-civility-and-dialogue-or-mired-in-contempt/ Especially see the end of the post.

  3. Jim Klein
    Jim Klein says:

    Education policy is always going to be the issue upon which you and I just disagree. I think we’ve both known that for as long as we’ve known each other. At least you have the satisfaction of knowing that the vast majority of the DFL agrees with you!
    One of the major “enlightenments” of my lifetime – a political awakening – was realizing that the legal organizing of public employees into true unions with rights to strike, which happened largely when I was a schoolkid, in the 60s and early 70s, didn’t “work” the way most of its early advocates expected. The big argument for it was that teachers were underpaid. And they were. The expectation was that unionizing would improve their pay. And, it did not. In my view, teachers are even more underpaid today than when I was a schoolkid. I’m not going to cite statistics, but I think the ones we have are supportive of that statement, and I don’t know many teachers who disagree. Adjusted for inflation, changes in wage structures in other college-degree professions, etc, etc, teachers today are not better off financially than they were in, say, the immediate pre-union 50s and early 60s.
    The biggest part of the reason for that is that it became apparent in the unions’ first decade or two, that there was a fundamental difference between strike dynamics in public unions and non-public unions. A corporation has to compete in a marketplace, with all that that entails, so the labor negotiation game is just different. A government entity can only pay more if it can tax more, which involves getting folks to vote certain ways on taxes and candidates. The early years of legal public employee unions are full of strikes that failed – and even more of strikes that succeeded, followed by districts that went into financial trouble. I live in Minneapolis, one of the few places around that is still living that dynamic today…! We agreed in the most recent cycle to a contract we can’t make work (the money is just “not there”), and tough times are coming – probably involving intervention by the state.
    But when workers are unionized, the union leadership has to do SOMETHING for the workers to justify leadership’s salaries, and what public employee unions have been getting for 6 or 7 decades now, instead of significantly better pay, is that the employees – or at least their union – has far more say over how the enterprise is run than was the case before. This is part of what Chalberg is talking about, and I think he’s correct. One of the other “enlightenment” moments of my adult life – this one a parentlng epiphany – came while my daughter was in High School – a “good” H.S. by the standards of the late ’90s – and I realized by simple observation just how “lesser” her education was, than my public education, in a less highly regarded H.S., had been 25 years before, due overwhelmingly to factors that had to do with union control and influence replacing Board and administrator influence and control. The system had never been perfect (or even “good”) before, but when I was in school, what happened in a school was much more in keeping with what parents wanted, expected, and thought was happening. This, again, is part of what Chalberg is going on about. It’s actually not new. But for a lot of parents, Covid is when they figured this out. I picked up on it already in the 90s.
    Now, that daughter of mine has had her own daughter in a Charter for six years. I fully approve, because I know what their public school alternatives were. In fact, I volunteered to pay for private schooling, and as my granddaughter approaches H.S. age, I will probably offer again. I know that there is a “thing” about parents saying that “education” (in general) has suffered but “our own school(s)” are just fine. Personally, I don’t get it. I chalk it up to too many parents who do not really KNOW what is going in “their own school(s)” to a good enough extent that they can make a good comparison to what they experienced, themselves. I was not an ideal parent in terms of school involvement as my daughter was growing up, but I was involved enough that I DID see the changes for the worse, even then.
    By the way, I know I’ve told YOU this before, but for the benefit of your readers I’ll add here that we started in Woodbury in ’84, moving to South Mpls in ’91 when my daughter was in 5th grade. And a part of why we made the move was how disappointed we were with the WOODBURY schools of that time. The problems I (and Chalberg) are prattling on about are not unique to one town or time (at least within the last 60 years), they are an American universal.
    In closing, I should remark that the ROOTS of the problems I’m referring to, above, are not unique to TEACHERS unions. They plague our society with respect to almost all public employee unions, to greater or lesser degrees. One thing that stuns me to this day is the accepted wisdom in our (yours and mine) shared DFL circles that teachers unions are “good” and police unions are “bad”. BOTH have contributed to similar kinds of societal issues! Both sets of employees are still underpaid. Period. And they – through their unions – have way more control over how things work than they once did.
    Since each of these kinds of unions is loved on one side of the political spectrum and reviled on the other, it seems almost forbidden – on the left, on the right, or even in the center – to point this out, but it is true. I firmly believe that we will not solve the problems we have in education today (regardless of what one thinks those problems are) OR the problems we have in law enforcement today (ditto), without first coming up with some way of getting past the unintended consequences of public employee unionization. The roots of both these huge sets or problems are actually quite similar.


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