A More Perfect Union

from @cameohsc on Twitter

Cameo Thorne has been an English teacher in the New Haven School District for 15 years, though her impact on the district extends beyond the classroom as the Project Director for the AFT Innovation Fund Grant for Restorative Practices. Restorative practice is generally a social science that studies how to alter systems like schools, prisons, etc so they more positively contribute to and strengthen a community. Through the Grant, Cameo has been replacing punitive practices (i.e. suspension) with mediation that builds community and understanding for students in conflict. However, Cameo believes the school district itself needs restoration as well. She is running to be president of the Teacher’s Union (one of the largest unions in New Haven) in an upcoming election this month.

Yale Herald: Tell me about yourself and your career and how you’ve been involved with the school system.

Cameo Thorne: I’ve worked in New Haven for about 20 years. I started out as a high school English teacher at High School in the Community, [and] at the beginning of the 2015–2016 school year, I moved into the restorative practices position. I have a Master’s in Educational Leadership, a graduate certificate in restorative practices, and a training license with the International Institute for Restorative Practices. During the summers, for the last couple of years, I’ve been training Boston teachers at Suffolk’s restorative justice center as a contract trainer. As I became more and more involved with restorative practices, I had an opportunity to visit [many of] the schools, to sit with teachers, to sit with students in a variety of settings and locations, to work with students who were struggling in relationship to being a member of the communities. And so, I got a pretty good sense of the stories that need to be told. To solve a problem, you have to understand the problem. And that means you have to know enough about it to ask the right questions. Once you have the right questions, you can [then] start working on the solution. And I began to see that we were not being proactive in relationship to meeting the needs of students and teachers. I do believe that students and teachers are like a marriage: it has to work together. There’s no such thing as what’s good for a teacher not being good for a student, or what’s good for a student not being good for a teacher — because they are inherently joined. Both of their needs are important and [must] be advocated for. When Governor Malloy [first] took office, I remember him making a statement that he wanted teachers to work eight-hour days. When he made the statement, I laughed, and I actually told our current union president we need a couple of billboards that say “I agree, teachers should work eight-hour days.” Last night, [I had] a teacher text me [saying], “Just ending another 14 hour day.” Most teachers are working nights [and] weekends. They’re taking homework every weekend. They work really long hours to meet the demand. [Then] they’ve got to come in cheerful and chipper and meet the needs of the students everyday despite the fact that there’s a mountain of [work to do]. [But] what would motivate a legislature to fund a situation when they think, as Governor Malloy [thinks], that we don’t even work a 40-hour week. There’s a lack of being proactive and educating the public about any of these issues. [There is] a really fundamental lack of understanding because of [the] lack of communication. So here we sit in a fiscal crisis [and] funding gets cut, but people don’t know how much more was needed to begin with. [Educating] the public about the real issues doesn’t happen. That’s [supposed to be] the job of the union. Their job [is] to advocate for teachers and the needs of students. But [the union’s] very reactive: they’ll [show] up [after] somebody’s in trouble, defending the contract. But it [should be] way more than that. In my vision, it’s not about being reactive, it’s about being proactive in order to actually solve the problems that teachers face daily. And that is inherently is restorative, because the community can function [once] everybody’s needs are getting met.

YH: How exactly do you intend on meeting those needs?

CT: There may be somebody out there who could do a better job than I do, but they’re not running, and they don’t hold office right now. I do have a plan. In my position I was able to [conduct] a workplace wellness survey, and about a little over a quarter of the teachers [responded]. I [took] some of those answers from that survey, which I then shared with my union, [but] they did not use that information. I want to perform a larger [survey] to collect a little more information. The next step is to work with the people. For example, New Haven public school advocates have been standing up at Board of Education meetings, yelling about 37 layoffs. [Was] our union president standing with them? No, he wasn’t. [There’s] that lack of ability to be proactive — I’ve got that. I think like that all the time: Where’s my agency, what do I do next to accomplish what I have to do? If I stay in reaction all the time, I’m never going to get to proaction.

YH: What are some possible challenges you might face during your campaign?

CT: I do have some challenges that are frustrating. One of them is that a lot of the electorate doesn’t know we’re having an election. Ballots are going to be sent home at the end of next week to their home addresses. If they don’t know they’re coming and they don’t get them, they won’t know to call for another ballot. [Many] don’t know who the candidates are, because in addition to the union not effectively communicating that there is an election, there’s no place where they’ve actually said “These are the candidates.” And right now, by the rules of engagement set up by the elections committee, I can’t go in the school parking lot at the end of the school day and hand out flyers. So [as for] making myself known, I’ve done so mostly [through] social media and through teachers I know. [P]eople need to know that there is an election, [and] what that process is. [I]f you don’t know any of this, you can’t make an informed decision.

YH: What role do you think the union should be playing in the New Haven public school system?

CT: There should be [some method] of informing the public about the reality of education. What does a four year graduation rate mean? The question isn’t, “Did the school get it done in four years?” It’s, “How many kids did they actually graduate?” And we must [help] them understand those differences. When we publish test scores, what do they actually mean? I was in a meeting where they told me there were 70 languages spoken in New Haven public schools. A third of the class are English language learners, and two thirds of the class aren’t. How much does that impact the teacher’s ability to bring everybody to some level of proficiency? As a high school English teacher, every single year over the last 10 I got more and more kids who read at a lower and lower reading level. At one point we had to put in a Wilson Reading Program, which meant that kids weren’t knowing phonics.

YH: You mentioned that there have been a lot of layoffs in the school system. Do you think that these problems with education are related to that, or that both of those things are caused by something else in the New Haven community?

CT: So if I’m a legislator, and I don’t know what the issues are, and I have to decide what to do with the dollar that I can send to cities and towns, I’m gonna look at it and say, “Well, teachers don’t even work 40 hours a week.” That was Malloy’s idea when he said that in public. [A legislator] is gonna make assumptions on what funding is needed based on their experience. How many legislators do you think have actually sat in a class, in a school system that might have had 70 different languages being spoken? Probably almost none of them. So, they can’t make sound decisions unless the unions are informing them. I have a different vision. It’s to be proactive, and to get ahead of this. However, I am completely stunted by the way union has failed to inform its own electorate about the candidates, about the fact that we’re having an election. About what the process is.

YH: And who are you running against?

CT: Tom Burns, who’s also running for the presidency. He’s the current vice president. And David Figueroa, who has been the president since they originally took the post.

YH: And were either of these two people teachers at all?

CT: They both were at one time. I don’t think David’s been in the classroom since 2008. And Tom hasn’t been in the classroom since 2008 or 2009. And I can tell you a lot has changed since then.

YH: So do you think that affects the amount of insight they have in terms of what they should be doing with their power?

CT: I think it does. You can’t know what you don’t know, right? And when I suggested we do the workplace stress survey, they weren’t interested. [The survey] to me was a way to collect information about what you don’t know. I don’t want to be that person who disparages others. I just want to say that I believe it needs to be done differently. And I think in this fiscal environment that it’s not likely to get better. There’s less money for us to do things with, and that means people have to make really hard decisions, but they can’t make them well if they don’t have the [right] information. It’s the job of the union to inform [our political leaders]. Rosa DeLauro came to our convocation and she said, “It is the teacher’s job to stand up for the needs of children.” Absolutely, that’s our job. And in particular our union’s.

YH: What is the goal of restorative practices, and how have you implemented it into the school system?

CT: One part is community building in and of itself. So when I walk into a [classroom] full of people, we all have similar values: loyalty, family, integrity, honesty, respect. But because we come from different places and spaces — over 70 languages for example — we may have different ways of applying those values. Or expectations of others in relationship to those values. We [must] agree to do things for each other so our community functions. With conflict, [we] switch the model from: “What rule was broken, who broke the rule, and how should we punish them?” to “What happened, who was harmed, what are the needs of the person who was harmed, and who is obligated to meet that need?” Then we come to an agreement about what would repair that relationship. And the agreement is solely between the person who did the harm and the person who was harmed. They create a contract together, and the relationship then starts to move on to a different place. That’s the nutshell. Implementation started with the community building circles. The political proactive side of being a union president is to make the public understand the needs of students and teachers. That’s what calms down conflict. When people understand and they go into an agreement about how they’re gonna support those needs, they don’t have to fight about getting their needs met. The perfect articulation of that purpose is to actually move the community to a space where all of the people are getting their needs met as possible.That should be the point of politics, the point of people serving other people as a representative, to get the [people’s] needs met.


A More Perfect Union was originally published in The Yale Herald on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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