New president of Portland teachers union on continued education, equity hurdles

New president of Portland teachers union on continued education, equity hurdles
New president of Portland teachers union on continued education, equity hurdles

Reyes Lazo, 11, left, works with teacher Jasmine Lowe in a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class at Prescott Elementary in Portland, Feb. 8, 2022. Educators at the Northeast Portland school are working to get students engaged and create a school community—two pieces of education that have been impacted by the long duration of the pandemic.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

During the pandemic, Portland teachers have faced profound obstacles. They’ve dealt with the challenge of teaching both remote learners and in-person students, navigating masks, testing and disruptive student behavior. The Portland Association of Teachers says the recent bump in pay and the 500-dollar retention bonus is a step in the right direction, but they need more support and funding to do their jobs — and make progress in their equity work so all students get what they need to be successful. We talk with Angela Bonilla, the new president of the union, about the last school year and one to come.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The state’s largest teachers union in Oregon has a new leader. The Portland Association of Teachers or PAT represents teachers at Portland public schools. They recently selected a new president. Angela Bonilla was bilingual classroom teacher in three different Portland’s elementary schools before becoming an instructional coach during the pandemic. Now she’s going to be leading the union as it navigates contract negotiations with the district, along with the ongoing effects of seemingly never-ending pandemic. Angela, welcome to TOL.

Angela Bonilla: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Miller: It’s great to have you on. Before we get to questions about your new union role, I just want to start with the job of teaching itself. Why do you want to become a teacher?

Bonilla: Teaching has always been my dream. I feel like education is the tool that we use to ensure that everyone has access to equality under the law and justice in this country. And so I feel like education was that way that I could give back and ensure that students were going to be able to create a world better than the one that I grew up in.

Miller: Were there teachers who made you want to become a teacher?

Bonilla: So many. I grew up in the Bronx, New York and so when I went to public school there from kinder through sixth grade, I had several teachers, specifically African American teachers who really embraced our language and our cultures in the Bronx. And when I received a scholarship to go to a private school there I met several teachers who ensured that I felt connected and supported. So several teachers inspired me to get into the profession.

Miller: You had, it seems, pretty lofty goals about what teaching meant for society and for the future: your ability to change the world in a sense. Has a career in teaching been what you were hoping it would be?

Bonilla: For the most part, yes. Every day that I get a chance to be around students and support them, is a day that I know that I’ve made a difference in a child’s life. And what we know about adverse childhood experiences, is that it only takes one consistent supportive adult relationship, to help mitigate some of that harm. And so the way that I look at teaching is that I will be that one consistent supportive adult relationship for each of my students every year. And then I know that I’ve done the best that I can to kind of push that change into the world. I think the difficult part of teaching, the barriers to teaching, have really come from the institution of education, of public schooling itself. And that’s how I found myself doing more union work.

Miller: You ended up going into bilingual education, as I noted it, at a few different elementary schools in Portland public schools. Why did you gravitate to bilingual education?

Bonilla: Well, I am a child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. So I am a concurrent bilingual, I grew up speaking both Spanish and English. There’s so much value to having your language represented in your education, and not in a tokenistic way of like, ‘let’s have a taco Tuesday’, but an actual way where you’re learning and thinking and able to pass between languages and be understood and be able to understand more of the world. So, bilingual education is something that’s very important to me in terms of validating our students’ experiences, and also making sure families feel included.

Miller: After being an elementary school classroom teacher, you became an instructional coach which you were doing until this new position. What does that mean? What does an instructional coach do?

Bonilla: Great question. An instructional coach is an educator who supports other educators in developing their practice. So we know professional development is great and important, but really the best way to change practices is to have that one-on-one conversation with educators, have them identify their strengths and also their areas of growth, and then develop a plan together through observation, through practice, to help them develop their skills. So my role entailed a lot of observations of classrooms, both online, during the pandemic and in person, when we returned, as well as just meeting with educators, providing resources. Sometimes it’s a lot of photocopying and creating materials for students, but really just being there as a support for educators.

Millers: Do you miss having more direct contact yourself with young people?

Bonilla: Every single day! [laughs].There is something that fills your bucket, that really kind of motivates you to keep doing the work when you get to interact with students face to face. And with the way that schooling has been the past few years, even though I’m not in my own classroom, I’ve had to support a lot of students outside of the classroom, or jump into a classroom as a substitute when we didn’t have enough substitutes. So I still get a good dose of students in my day.

Miller: Why did you want to run for union president?

Bonilla: Well, I started doing a lot of union work. I joined our bargaining team. I’ve worked on several committees, and as I was doing that work, I realized that we have so many educators that are passionate about public education, about supporting our students, about connecting with our families and we needed more structures in order to do that. And so I decided I wanted to run to help build up those structures. Also, Portland Public Schools has hired a lot of professionals of color, and has put a very huge focus on equity and inclusion in their work, and I want to make sure that we have folks in office who can speak to that experience personally, and who can really push that work forward and make sure that we’re not diversifying for the sake of diversity, but actually doing the work that’s going to transform our schools and our practices.

Miller: What are examples of that? Because it seems like you’re saying that in some ways the district has been moving in a positive direction. What are you afraid of, that won’t happen going forward?

Bonilla: Well, there is that quote, ‘I see what you do, so I have a hard time believing what you say’, right? And so our experience with Portland Public Schools for years has been that, as a midsize school district, we have a consistent turnover in district leadership. Folks come in from other districts, hoping to get a nicer title, then move on to a larger district, or go back to where they came from for a higher position. So my biggest concerns are that we have leadership, and central office, that has continued to grow in size, where they’re hiring more and more central office leaders and yet we’re cutting school teachers, we’re cutting school educators and professionals. So I wanna make sure that when we’re doing our union work, when we’re supporting and working in in in tandem with the district, we’re focusing on how we can create great public schools for all, and bringing that power from a central office that’s detached from the work that’s being done on the ground, to the families, the students, the educators on the ground who want to do the work and who are committed to staying in Portland and in Portland public schools.

Miller: You’re entering a bargaining year. It’s not like you’re totally new to that. You have been a part of bargaining before, but never as the head of the union. How are you approaching that, as we enter the fall?

Bonilla: Bargaining is a very interesting and specific type of work. I think as we go into the bargain, we’re going to continue to lift up the voices of our educators and our families and communities. We’re gonna make sure that we’re organizing and communicating clearly with the public. And reminding folks that our goals are aligned with what their goals are for their children, right? Because our working conditions are their students’ learning conditions. So when we demand smaller class sizes, it’s because our kids need them. And when we demand facilities that are not infested with rats, that are temperature controlled, it’s not because I don’t like wearing a coat during the winter, it’s because my kids need that to learn. So we are going to, during this bargain, continue pushing for the things that every school should have, regardless of zip code or income. And ensuring that the work is sustainable. So we don’t continue to bleed educators, because without educators and the staff that work in schools, we can’t function as a school district. So those are some of the things that we’ll be pushing for and really kind of advocating for during our bargaining.

Miller: Do you already foresee yourself what the biggest sticking points are going to be? Do you already have a sense for them?

Bonilla: I have an idea that the district has put out the story of a lack of funding, and a lot of one-time funding that we received over the pandemic and so they are very, very concerned about the budget and ensuring that we have a balanced budget. And I completely understand that as educators, we get paid once a month. So I definitely know budgeting is important. And I want to make sure that we are not limiting ourselves to the present reality, and are fighting on multiple fronts for the schools that our students deserve. We have a state quality education model, and we know that the state is not currently funding it to its fullest potential. And so, in addition to bargaining with the district, we need to be advocating with the district, at the state level, to ensure that we are fully funding education. We have gone too long deciding that education is a backburner topic when the reality is, it is preventative of all these other issues that we keep bringing to the forefront. When we educate, when we create community schools that provide resources and access to resources for families and students, we are able to eliminate some of these negative outcomes that then impact the rest of our society. So I foresee the budget being a concern. But I also know that when things get tough, as this pandemic has shown us, we rise to the occasion and we have a greater capacity to care for ourselves and each other than we’ve been led to believe.

Miller: How would you describe the relationship between the union and administrators right now?

Bonilla: Well, our building-level administrators, our principles and our assistant principals, for the most part, have a pretty good relationship with our educators. They’re definitely outliers who see our union as a barrier, as opposed to a partner, and that’s always difficult. But for the most part, I feel like we have administrators in buildings who are dedicated to serving our students. We just have to make sure that they’re following our contract in order to ensure that those practices are applied equally. When it comes to district level administrators, I think I have to believe they wake up every day saying ‘I want to do what’s best for kids. I want to do what’s best for our schools and I want to ensure that our public schools are running well’. However, when I see what that looks like on the ground, there is a disconnect. So what I hope, moving forward, is that we are able to work with the district to kind of lift up the great educators and the great practices that are happening as opposed to pushing down initiatives that might come from a place that is focussed on spreadsheets and numbers as opposed to the real lived experience that our kids and our families and our educators are having on the ground last year.

Miller: Last year, the first full year back in classrooms, proved to be a huge challenge for a really high number of students, not just in Portland, this was a nationwide phenomenon. What do you think schools and teachers can do right now or in the fall to make next year better?

Bonilla: That’s a great question. And I think I’d like to slightly reframe: I think educators are doing everything they can to have next year in the fall be better. But there are certain things we do not have control over. And so when it comes to having enough staffing in the building, we are not in control of the budget, and we know that the district has already decided to cut positions, OR not hire for positions that were vacant this year. And so we are going to start this year with less educators in buildings than we did the year previous. And yet we still have students who have disappeared during the pandemic that we hope will be coming back. So we might end up with more students than we expected, less teachers than we had the year before, and each student is coming back with a higher level of need than they had previously. So I think as educators, we’re going to do what we always do. We’re going to create welcoming environments. We’re gonna ensure we’re connecting with families and connecting with community organizations to connect families to them. We’re going to ensure that we have everything we can possibly provide, so students feel safe at school. And what we need is the time to do it right: planning time, the time to be able to assess and meet with students as well as district level support, and systems that will allow us to teach students the skills they need to deal with all the internal turmoil that they are having to experience, and the trauma that they’ve experienced over these past three years.

Miller: Angela Bonilla, I’m sure we will talk again. Thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Bonilla: Thank you.

Miller: Angela Bonilla is the new president of the Portland Association of Teachers. That is the union that represents teachers in Portland’s public schools.

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