Teachers Talk Back: NY Teacher Briana Walker
Briana Walker teaches middle school special education in the Bronx and is a UFT delegate for her school.
Why did you decide to become a teacher?
I was interested in being a teacher since high school. I always liked tutoring and working with kids, but it was made official when I became an Americorps Jumpstart member. I worked with Atlanta preschoolers when I was in my freshman year of college, and that was a defining moment. I got into the New York City Teaching Fellows and I’d heard great things about it, so I accepted and moved back to New York.
What do you love about your school?
I love my school. I think the greatest part about it is the people I get to work with and how they help me grow. I hope I’ve helped them grow too, bouncing ideas off each other. Everyone is phenomenal to work with: their personalities, their professionalism, their expertise in their field.
Why do you think it’s important for teachers to be part of the changes happening in education?
What I’ve realized is that a lot of the time, policymakers don’t really know what’s going on in the classroom and they don’t know our students, and they don’t know a lot of teachers. We know what’s good for our students because we’re with them 180 days a year; we know what works and what doesn’t. To say “This is what you need to be doing” and not know what affects us and our students is not fair.
How have you been an advocate for your students?
I think as a special ed teacher you definitely have a very unique role because you have to advocate to a lot of people. You have to advocate for your students to parents about what setting is right for their student, especially because there’s a stigma around special education. You have to advocate with your team because a lot of people don’t understand disabilities. And with my administration I need to advocate because sometimes they water down the curriculum, but our students need to be challenged and accommodated at the same time.
Why do you think it’s important to be involved in your union?
I think it’s important to be involved because the union is another group that makes these decisions. I think the union is too much of a separate entity for most teachers. We pay dues and are members so we should be involved. Also, there’s a lot of strength in numbers. As a younger teacher I have noticed that most young teachers don’t know our contractual rights and principals sometimes take advantage of that. I have learned a lot from being a union delegate this year.
Some people think that you can’t be pro-union and pro-reform. But you’re a UFT delegate from your school and you support changes for our schools. How would you respond?
I think you definitely can be both. The main point is to be vocal and to realize that my job is dedicated to my students. Whatever helps me become a better teacher as well as advocate for my students, I’m on that side. Right now, my students aren’t getting what they need. But for my students to succeed I need to be successful.
I think people have a lot of misconceptions about how unions are against school reform. They’re trying to support us and make sure that we still have rights. E4E is trying to bring back teaching as a profession, and the union has realized that our profession is being demeaned in a lot of ways. We’re all having the same conversations. The whole point is to come together to have ideas about how to support each other.