By Gina Garro
H ow can we be good teachers if we don’t know where our students live and we have no connection to their neighborhood?”
asked Sandra Speziale-Burke, a kindergarten teacher
at the Garfield Elementary School in Revere.
“What’s happened to the human element of teaching?
All we seem to talk about is data,” said another
colleague of mine.
I was in complete agreement when I heard
these comments, which led me to work with
Garfield’s Parent Teacher Organization to organize
neighborhood walks during the past school year that
involved our faculty, students and their parents, and
other community members.
During these walks, I and many of my fellow
educators learned not just about the lives of our
students, but also about our need to build coalitions
with parents and other allies if we are to realize the
schools and communities our students deserve.
Revere is an incredibly diverse community.
Although I grew up in the city, it’s a different place
now, with significant Spanish-, Portuguese- and
Arabic-speaking populations. At the Garfield School,
I and my colleagues drive into the garage in the
morning and drive out again at the end of the day.
We don’t often cross into the neighborhood.
Last fall, after I spoke with my co-teacher,
Josephine King, about the concerns expressed by
our colleagues, she and I initiated the neighborhood
walks with our first-grade class.
We asked our students’ parents to lead us on a
walk around the neighborhood one day after school.
Our small group learned about where to buy the best
halal meats, where students get their hair cut, and
where their families do their laundry. Probably the
best part was the reaction from students when they
saw us walking down the street. It was obvious to
those of us on that first walk that this experience was
connecting us to our students and improving us as
educators in a powerful way.
I wanted the other teachers in Garfield to share
this experience. I worked with Kristen Janjar, the
PTO president, to identify parents and community
members who would be willing to volunteer as
guides for a larger-scale walk.
So on a sunny afternoon in June, as part of a
faculty meeting, about 70 teachers divided into 10
groups took maps and went out walking. Teachers
went to designated locations to hear parents and
other community members describe what they love
about their neighborhoods.
One parent — who chose to stand at the Banana
Boat ice cream shop — said this was the first place
she had come to after arriving in the U.S. from India.
The group was moved to tears. We also went to a
Moroccan bakery and the famous Bagel Bin deli, and
we discovered a neighborhood mural and a “book
box” built by a parent, where anyone can pick up or
drop off a free book.
As teachers gathered back at the school after
the walk, there was energy and joy in the room. We
were struck by the profound experience of finally
discovering a neighborhood that we had been
teaching in for years. We were humbled by our
realization that we had so much to learn from this
community. We had entered a space that we were
typically separated from due to language, race or
culture. And last, we felt fulfilled to have spent time
learning about our students’ lives rather than their
For days afterward, teachers approached me
in the hallway, expressing their desire for more
experiences that bring us closer to our students and
give true meaning to teaching and learning.
“I have driven down this street a million times
and never noticed it,” said a colleague. “I’m ashamed
to say I never realized how vibrant it is.”
I think that for many of us, this simple walk
reminded us why we became educators: to make
human connections and be lifelong learners.
It also exemplifies our union’s paramount
struggle to reclaim schools that respect teacher voice
and educate the whole child.
Weeks later, on the last day of school, many of
us gathered, this time before school, and walked in
together to express our solidarity once again with our
union, our students and their families, our schools
and our communities.
Gina Garro is a kindergarten and first-grade
special education teacher at the Garfield School in
Revere and a member of the MTA Board of Directors.
On the last day
of the 2017-2018
school year, teachers
walked into Garfield
in an expression of
them, from left to
right, were Revere
Scata, Paula Elwell
and Nawal Faris-Cochran.
Photo by Bob Duffy
Alongside the home visits, crucial organizing
work has been taking place in many communities
to engage newly hired educators, who are often
unfamiliar with the full scope of the work happening
in their locals.
In her city, where as many as 120 new educators
are entering the school system this year, Fall River
Educators’ Association President Rebecca Cusick
developed a full day of union orientation activities to
precede opening day.
In the past, the FREA had an hour to spend
with new educators during an overall school district
orientation. Cusick said that was nowhere near
enough time to address all of the questions and
concerns raised by people new to the profession.
“It was shocking when we realized that they
really didn’t know their rights and that they had
a lot of professional development needs, such as
classroom management and dealing with student
trauma,” Cusick said. “They really want workshops
So the FREA organized new-hire events with
morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate
different schedules. During the meetings, new
educators are offered professional development
workshops and learn about union membership as
an advocacy tool. The FREA is also organizing
members to greet new employees who arrive during
the school year.
“Often, people can solve their own problems
just by knowing what is in the contract, so we help
familiarize them with it,” Cusick said. “We show them
how the contract is a tool to support them in teaching.”
That’s a message carried by the summer member
organizers when they visit colleagues, as well.
Ghalaini, the paraeducator from West
Springfield who was canvassing in Holyoke, said
that she began her career in private preschools and
recently started working at West Springfield High
School. “I saw right away the difference of working
in a school where a contract spelled out the working
conditions,” she said. “Doing the organizing work
this summer was my way into union activism. It’s
important for us to keep the union strong.”
For more information on the All In campaign,
please visit www.massteacher.org/allin.
Continued from Page 6
Members are All In for organizing as new school year nears