Teachers are often stretched thin between planning, teaching, grading, and assisting with extracurriculars. That’s certainly the case for Stamford teacher Kate Tobin, who teaches a full load of English classes, has co-organized lip-dub music videos to enhance school spirit at Westhill High, and coordinates the Westhill Alumni Network. Despite her many commitments, Tobin makes it a priority to help her colleagues by serving as a building rep, Stamford Education Association secretary, SEA newsletter editor, and as a member of the Negotiations and Grievance Committees.
“Having a teachers union is really important,” she says. “If we didn’t have our union, teachers would be a lot more abused and new expectations and responsibilities would be foisted on us without our input or any additional compensation.”
Tobin adds, “I don’t find the time, I make the time.”
Westhill teachers greatly appreciate Tobin’s willingness to make the time.
“Kate deserves recognition for her hard work and the time she spends aiding her colleagues,” says fellow Westhill English teacher Erica Brunner.
Brunner says Kate helped her a few years ago with an issue she was facing. “She was more than willing to listen to my concerns, come to meetings on my behalf, and work with HR to rectify the situation.”
Tobin, who herself graduated from Westhill High and has been teaching for 14 years, finds that not many teachers her age are involved with their union.
“I feel an obligation to be an active member,” she says. “I’m the oldest of four and have always had a ‘stand up for the little guy’ complex.”
This year has been a particularly challenging one for Tobin and the other Westhill building reps as their school is one of the worst affected by Stamford’s mold crisis, which has negatively impacted teaching and learning all over the district.
“Toward the end of September, many of my colleagues were so ill they couldn’t come in to work, and the kids were not feeling well,” Tobin says. “I saw my role as making sure someone was doing something to address our mold problem. I started attending the meetings of the city’s mold task force to advocate for my students and my colleagues.”
In the midst of more than a dozen teacher absences and a school in disarray due to mold abatement efforts, administration recently moved forward with plans to change to a completely different daily schedule for the next school year. Teachers are already feeling overwhelmed and have had no professional development about teaching with block scheduling. When Tobin first brought concerns to administration she didn’t get a response. When she organized members, 93 percent of whom signed onto a letter saying they don’t want to go to a block schedule next year, administration agreed to a conversation. “Our voice does matter when we come together and speak up,” Tobin says.
Speaking up like that with administration was scary at first, Tobin says. “The first time I had to send an email as a union rep it was terrifying, but after that it got easier.”
For anyone considering becoming a building rep and facing those first, initial fears, Tobin says “If you have an existing building rep you admire, apprentice yourself and start there. I learned so much from Ruth Walden, my mentor. It was always helpful to have her there to ask how to handle an issue I hadn’t faced before.”
If you don’t have a union rep in your building then you are needed all the more, and Tobin says, “Focus on ‘what can we do to fix a problem?’ rather than by going right to a grievance. Always start with a conversation—but have a time limit.”
And don’t forget to look for support when you need it. “Remember you can always turn to your local president or CEA UniServ Rep,” Tobin says.
Do you know a great building rep who deserves to be recognized? Let us know and we could feature him/her in our next story.