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Exiting teachers-union leader Julie Blaha talks of tenure, retention — and improv

Courtesy of Education Minnesota
Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota President Julie Blaha speaks to union members during a rally.

If you’ve never met Julie Blaha, here are some things you should know:

She’s a fast talker, and she talks in concentric circles. You may think she’s departed entirely from one topic for another, but then back she zips to complete her point.

She’s crazy-smart, and her points are good so you end up wanting to sprint a little bit mentally to keep up with her.

She is possibly the funniest woman in education leadership circles in the upper Midwest. She’s capable of rendering even a seasoned journalist helpless with laughter, and thus unable to impose a linear structure on the conversation.

Sample quote: “Math teachers — we’ve been sharing assessments for years. We’re like, ‘None of our people got question No. 14.’ ‘Oh, yours did? What did you do?’ By the way — PLCs — boom! That’s it right there.” PLCs being professional learning communities, the more conventional explanation of which could palaver on for hundreds of snoozy words.

In the same breath that she is cheerfully describing her attention deficit disorder, she is also talking about how she learned to tap it to make her teaching great.

And you can totally see it, this hyperkinetic woman at the front of a classroom of sixth-grade physics students. She’s got toys, she can make things explode — she’s all over that student engagement thing.

It does, however, make a traditional “exit interview” with the outgoing president of the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s teachers union the journalistic equivalent of a game of Twister.

And so … backing up to try to back into a more conventional narrative:

For the last four years, Blaha has been president of Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota. Because that somewhat fusty name makes its acronym AHEM, its Twitter handle is its affiliate number, @7007, which allows Blaha to crack spy jokes.

AHEM limits its officers to four two-year terms. Blaha is only halfway through that, but decided to step down because she feels it’s a pivotal moment in the district’s evolution.

This is somewhat unusual for a teachers union leader. Many serve at a later phase of their careers, and don’t return to the classroom. If they leave their locals it is often for regional or national leadership.

“When I go back into the classroom, I’m going to have to touch every single thing I have done,” says Blaha. And she’s OK with that. In fact, if anything more energized.

From professional-development overhaul to lobbying

Her skill set, she says, was perfect for what transpired during her four-year tenure. Which is a lot. She helped to craft a sweeping overhaul of teacher professional-development programs, a feat which then earned her the job of two successive campaigns to get AHEM’s members to sign on.

She was a fixture at the Capitol, where she lobbied against the constitutional prohibition on gay marriage, for marriage equality and for the state’s new anti-bullying bill. Going forward, she will be the Education Minnesota representative on the panel tasked with monitoring the bill’s implementation.

Courtesy of Education Minnesota
Blaha is interviewed on Air America radio.

She helped the district pass a levy during a recession. She helped to design and implement a teacher evaluation system. And she lead the charge to create a novel structure for including the public in contract negotiations.

Superintendant Dennis Carlson retired at the end of the year, so Blaha’s stepping down also allows new leadership going forward all around.

Most visible, however, Blaha led the union through the brutal, wrenching controversy over student suicides and a federal lawsuit over the district’s “neutrality” policy on LGBT issues.

Effects of tenure

And here Blaha takes a sober little pause in the conversational circling. With headlines full of controversies involving teacher tenure, her community is an example of why the protection is important.

Anoka-Hennepin faculty would have been hard pressed to talk to the Southern Poverty Law Center and Faegre Baker Daniels, the law firms that brought the suit, if speaking truth to power cost them their jobs, she notes.

“Our administrators were asking us to talk about issues that are very sensitive, very difficult,” she says. “Union reps sat next to teachers while they were interviewed. … Administrators would not hear what they needed to hear if the teachers hadn’t had protection.”

Even with contractual protections, reprisal can be a very real thing. At the very least its mere possibility generates fear, which Blaha notes, “messes everything up.”

How? “My lowest moment as a teacher: A kid used the F word in class. Here I was the former president of NOW. I’m the vice president of the union and I have enough ADD to react quickly. But I hesitated.”

The first and second thoughts in that split-second of hesitation: “I knew the student’s parents would call [her boss]. But I knew my principal would back me.”

A further way in which fear compounds things: “If I can’t tell a story about my lowest moment as a teacher, I can never get better.  That’s where you get real change, is when you can acknowledge your weak points as much is your strength.”

Worse, the fear seeps out into the student body. Before the settlement of the lawsuit Blaha was at the head of a classroom when one student barked that another one’s mother was a dyke. She didn’t flinch or hesitate, and in the ensuing weeks the student began talking openly about her lesbian mother and another came out.

“That was an important moment,” she says. “It’s those little effects that add up over time.”

Keeping teachers in the classroom

And on the concept of fear and suspicion Blaha zips to another curve in her concentric circle. The first hurdle to enabling great teaching is getting teachers to stay in the classroom.

The centerpiece to Blaha’s work on teacher evaluations and professional development is making sure that at every step of the process teachers feel they are interacting with educators who understand their work and their challenges.

“Why won’t people stay?” she asks. “This is one more reason why good professional development is so important: It’s so important to feel there’s someone there who knows you.

“You hear a lot of rhetoric about great teachers,” Blaha continues. “We’re not great all the time. We need support while we are learning to be great, too.”

And here she has a suggestion for the education-reform community: “I’m afraid teachers disengage from the education-reform discussion because they lack that practical application classroom. If people are really serious about improving schools we have to get past that and really talk about what that looks like in practice.”

This prompts a digression involving the numerous union supported levy campaigns during her time as president. Which prompts the story about a small tweak — a gizmo that amplifies the voice of an elementary teacher whose students’ hearing has not yet matured — that wrought wonders.

“As a union president you don’t have the luxury of living in the world of ideas,” she says. “I see a lot of people who like to chat about education, but we need people who work in the classroom.”

That kind of sweeping, summary quote is usually the conclusion of a conventionally structured profile. Before we say goodbye to Blaha, however, let’s return to the business of being funny.

Entry into improv

When Blaha was a girl, her mother thought she ought to be on stage. Wanting to flex a little a few years into her teaching career, Blaha took improv lessons. Later, she wrote her master’s thesis on using comedy to increase creativity in mathematics.

“I love comedy and I’m in a performance style job,” she recalls. “I went to the Brave New Workshop. My teaching improved, my political performance improved, my social life improved.”

The first exercise was called the spacewalk. Participants walked around a large space practicing connecting with people nonverbally.

“The next day at school walking down the hallway I noticed students smiling at me,” she says. “I was communicating that I noticed them.”

Another improve lesson involved the maxim that you are funniest when you make your comedy partner look good. Blaha knows from talking to kids who engaged in bullying behavior that when one student insults another it’s sometimes a misfired attempt to fit in by being funny.

“It’s giving people the ability to be funny with you versus against you,” she explains. “Not everyone has to laugh but no one can cry. Think about that in the classroom. If we could make people feel comfortable and feel welcomed?”

And here we get for real to the concluding summary quote. Improv actors, Blaha explains, are trained to look for moments in a skit or a routine where action pivots. Tilt your worldview a little and you will realize that they are nothing more than comedic openings.

“In comedy, change is fuel,” says Blaha. “How great would it be if we saw change as an opportunity?”

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/11/2014 - 11:24 am.

    What a wonderful article

    Whenever I see anyone whining about teachers and “union thugs” – I will remember it.

    Ms. Blaha is stepping down after only four years? What a terrible and power hungry person. /sarcasm

    Ms. Blaha’s return to full time teaching is a gain for our students. Her leadership and example was a gain for teachers.

    Thanks, Julie.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/11/2014 - 09:10 am.

    Good stuff

    “…Good teaching comes from identity, not technique, but if I allow my identity to guide me toward an integral technique, that technique can help me express my identity more fully.

    Teaching always takes place at the crossroads of the personal and the public, and if I want to teach well, I must learn to stand where these opposites intersect.

    Intellect works in concert with feeling, so if I hope to open my students’ minds, I must open their emotions as well.” …Parker J. Palmer, “The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.”

    Sounds to me like Ms. Blaha has learned those lessons, whether she’s read that particular book or not.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/11/2014 - 10:42 am.

    A boatload of new cash into circulation; no appreciable improvement in grad rates; no accountability.

    I’d say Ms. Blaha has set the bar for successful union bosses.

    • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/11/2014 - 12:57 pm.

      “She helped the district pass a levy during a recession. “

      Maybe you missed this, Mr. Swift? You see the way it works is that voters in a district decided that spending more on education was a good idea. That is the way it works in Minnesota. Is it different somehow, where you live, in South Carolina?

      And I didn’t see any mention of graduation rates in the article. Do you have a link to a source that states there was “no appreciable improvement in grad rates?”

      Ms. Blaha certainly has set the bar for union leaders – not bosses or thugs – both terms being rude and untrue.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/11/2014 - 02:19 pm.

        For a guy that likes telling people “Google is your friend” I’d be surprised if any if this is news to you, Bill. But hey, I’ll play along.

        “Data from the Minnesota Department of Education in 2012 show only a quarter of American Indian students graduated in four years. The rate is 36.8 percent for both Latino and black students.”

        http://www.mprnews.org/story/2013/04/05/education/minneapolis-graduation-rate

        But you’re right. If the residents of Minneapolis see fit to reward this kind of dismal performance with hefty levy increases and salary increases all around, who am I to complain?

        As I said, she’s set the bar for successful union bosses.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 07/11/2014 - 03:00 pm.

          Dismal performance?

          since Minnesota is currently 4th in the nation when it comes to graduation rates, perhaps you should be more concerned about your new home state which languishes in the 47th spot. Although, like everything else down there, the GOP seems quite content to escalate their pace to reach the bottom rung of intelligentsia.

          • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/11/2014 - 10:10 pm.

            Speaking of the intelligentsia…Minnesota has high graduation rates, for white kids. You might not have known it, but for the past couple of years, Saint Paul public schools has been sporting the worst graduation gap In. The. Country.

            That’s a #1 y’all can kindly keep!

            • Submitted by jason myron on 07/12/2014 - 09:07 pm.

              “Y’all?”

              see…the results of the long-deficient South Carolina educational system have already taken its toll on you. Next you’ll be railing on about the “Yankee war of aggression.” and modifying your pick-up to blow coal at fuel efficient cars that offend you on the highway. But at least you can fly that Gadsden flag without your neighbors rolling their eyes and crossing to the other side of the street to avoid your house.

        • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/11/2014 - 03:16 pm.

          So Ms. Blaha is peronally responsible

          for the gradation rates of all American Indian and black students in Minneapolis, Mr. Swift?

          And of course you made the claim that there was no improvement in the rates. Perhaps you should have included the acknowledgment that progress was being made.

          As usual, I find it amusing that someone from South Carolina would criticize Minnesota schools. Perhaps you should save your energy to improving things in your own back yard?

          Black Male Graduation Rates
          link: http://ow.ly/z3Z88

          Minnesota 65% (#8 in US)
          South Carolina 46% (#45 in US)

          And in Minneapolis-St. Paul we are committed to doing even better for the graduation rates of ALL of our citizens. Improvement is taking place right now.

          • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/11/2014 - 10:17 pm.

            I see you’ve dug deep into the Google to find what you wanted, Bill. Problem with scraping the bottom of the info barrel is you often get, well, bottom of the barrel info.

            Meanwhile, the Minnpost says: “Federal data indicate that Minnesota has one of the largest education achievement disparities in the nation.Most recently the state ranked dead last in four-year graduation rates for Latino and American Indian students, second to last for African-American students, and near the bottom for low-income students overall.”

            http://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2013/11/achievement-gap-cannot-be-resolved-isolating-it

            *Awkward*

            • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/12/2014 - 03:40 am.

              I guess the truth hurts, Mr. Swift

              With respect to your first paragraph, are you claiming that my cite is “bottom of the barrel info”? On what basis?

              As far as the second goes, I’ve already pointed out that we are making progress in narrowing the gap. Doing something is always preferable to just talking about it.

              Which brings me to my third point. It appears that a black student in Minnesota – the whole state now – has about a 20% better chance graduating from high school in Minnesota than in South Carolina.

              Awkward, indeed.

              Finally I’d like to remind you that you were at one time a GOP endorsed candidate for school board in St. Paul. You didn’t even make it out of the primary. This was because your platform was primarily about rooting out the “homosexual agenda” in the St. Paul school system.

              Not helpful then and not helpful now.

              I hope you are enjoying the climate – both political and educational – in your new state of residence, South Carolina.

              • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/14/2014 - 06:15 am.

                Bill, there is no primary for school board elections, and my platform included lessening the influence of all politicly motivated special interest groups from public schools.

                But you did manage to correctly identify my home state, so you have that going for you, which is good.

  4. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 07/11/2014 - 10:50 am.

    Bill

    She served two two-year terms. And has been known to occasionally refer to herself as a thug. /I feel your saracasm!

  5. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 07/12/2014 - 10:06 am.

    Other things we are tops in

    We have an opportunity gap in this state we are tops in housing gap, employment gap, wage gap, incarceration gap, and on and on. To pile all of those gaps on teachers, instead of addressing it as the obvious societal problem it is smacks me as the ultimate doge of accountability and responsibility. We will never progress as long we don’t start taking responsibility as a societ, and that even includes people like you Mr. Swift.

  6. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 08/04/2014 - 07:05 am.

    Learned a lot

    Thanks for this well written column. I learned a lot.

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