Have you seen the unhelpful United Teachers of Los Angeles billboard? It positions images of an apoplectic president and befuddled secretary of education on one side, inelegantly layered against a forbidding brick wall, under the condemning headline “They Build Walls.” On the other side, a montage of diverse teachers, students and parents smile warmly against a Girl Scout green background, below the proud declaration “We Build Communities.”
The billboard intends to convey the message that UTLA is a force for unity, countering the administration’s divisive policies. As a high school English teacher and a UTLA member, I am certain that my union does considerable good, such as gaining us a much-deserved and overdue pay raise. Unfortunately, the billboard’s garish graphics promote further polarization, which doesn’t help anyone and is one of my union’s bad habits.
One big problem with the billboard is its “they” versus “we” mentality. This promotes scapegoating, partisanship and self-righteousness, none of which serve to improve our public schools. Furthermore, the stereotypically negative portrayal of the president and education secretary Betsy DeVos excludes their supporters from joining any community UTLA claims to be building. It is not clear to me how such exclusion promotes rational, open-minded consideration of the challenges facing public education, such as declining enrollment. Instead, the hellfire for them/heaven-on-earth for us configuration depicted here sadly echoes the president’s infamous reliance on scapegoating and division.
Sadly, this ad campaign is not a one-off. UTLA consistently uses polarizing rhetoric in an attempt to rally its membership. My union’s flyers, websites and meetings commonly demonize “billionaires” and “charter schools,” often while lacking the evidence and balance that we educators expect our students to provide in their essays and presentations. This approach persists despite its manifest failure at engagement: fewer than 25 percent of members vote in our elections.
A better billboard would be none at all. To reach the audience that cares most about teachers, UTLA should advertise Bitmoji of great teachers on the social media platform d’jour or project holograms of excellent educators hovering above the Hollywood sign. That’s just a little brainstorming because I don’t want to complain without offering a positive suggestion. I’m not an advertising man, though. I’m a teacher, and I want my union to present an inspiring image of our profession.
I have real hope for positive change, based largely on my classroom observations of UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl when we were colleagues teaching at Crenshaw High. Alex is definitely one of the top five teachers I’ve ever observed. He started class by offering students nutritious treats, and followed up with engaging pedagogy that encouraged critical thinking and empowered student voice. There is no doubt in my mind that the head of our union understands effective teaching.
Alex is also open to criticism, unlike our country’s current chief executive. I reached out to Alex by e-mail to request his perspective for this op-ed piece. He wrote back promptly, asking for my suggestions about a more appropriate response to the current administration. I replied that the president is a bully we should seek as much as possible to ignore. Rather than fueling his fire, we ought to implement the practical suggestions for improving teaching included as the epilogue to The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein, a 2014 book justly favorable to Alex. These suggestions include emphasizing peer-to-peer professional development and continuing to negotiate for salary increases that increase the prestige of our profession.
Alex disagrees with my “just-ignore-him” advice. In our for-the-record correspondence, he wrote, “We can’t ignore a policy program of expansion of vouchers and privatization, anti-union legislation, curbing LGBTQ protections, executive orders that cast a net to deport up to 11 million people, explicitly alliance-building with white nationalist groups internationally, working to repeal health care for millions of people, and everything else Trump/DeVos are doing currently and working to expand.”
I agree, though I have well-informed friends who think otherwise. Yet there is no shortage of attention being paid to the administration’s policies. What my union could be doing differently is transcending divisive rhetoric and focusing instead on delivering the critical thinking and empowered voices that so many UTLA educators cultivate daily. Let’s highlight how we do that and spread the good word, because truly the best response to our current president is a vast increase in constructive, empowered, diverse and open-minded voices. We educators owe this to our country after graduating a population capable of electing DJ Trump.
Mark Gozonsky is a writer who teaches high school English in the Los Angeles Unified School District.