Originally published in the Hartford Courant
By John Grande
This past Christmas, one of my first graders handed me a gift: a candle accompanied by a note from his mother. It read, “Thank you for lighting the right fire in my little one’s learning experience.” I’ve been a physical education teacher in Hartford Public Schools for 34 years—moments like this give meaning to my career.
I’ve worked with kids from diverse economic and racial backgrounds for decades. Teaching PE gives me an opportunity to promote a healthy lifestyle and to teach pro-social skills that will help them become responsible and productive members of society. From the beginning, my practice has been to hold students accountable to the rules while helping them process and learn from their choices.
This profession has its share of challenges. Survival requires a thick skin, and the payoff in students’ lives comes years, sometimes even decades, later.
But in the last few years, I’ve experienced a different kind of challenge, and it’s forced me to take legal action.
In education, mandatory trainings have become routine. One such training in the Fall of 2020 was different, though, and not just because it was held over Zoom during the height of the pandemic. The training was labeled “Identity & Privilege.” I recognized it as part of critical race theory. After completing an activity, I and other teachers were assigned to “breakout” rooms and asked to discuss how the activity made us feel. I was asked for my opinion, so I gave it, honestly and professionally.
Apparently because I disagreed with the training’s implications, two teachers complained. Months later, district administration informed me I was under investigation.
Our employee handbook explicitly guarantees freedom of speech, stating, “No employee of the Hartford Public Schools will be subject of disciplinary action or retaliatory action of any kind as a result of the exercise of his or her free speech rights.”
But I was smeared and vilified, anyway. The district’s disciplinary process is heavily stacked against teachers, and it soon became a witch hunt that led to a kangaroo court.
So, I wasn’t surprised when, more than a year later, administrators issued me a written reprimand that required further “sensitivity awareness” training and threatened more discipline—even termination—if I didn’t comply.
This skewed process is one reason why unions exist. I should know—I was a member of the Hartford Federation of Teachers (HFT) for 29 years, a building representative for five years, and helped negotiate two teacher contracts. I always stood up for my colleagues when administrators treated them unfairly. Though I resigned from the union in 2018, teachers still call me when they need advice.
I knew that I could effectively defend myself in front of an unbiased third party during arbitration. But only the union can start the arbitration process.
That’s when the surprise came: HFT’s vice president emailed me saying that because I was no longer a dues-paying member, the union would not initiate arbitration.
Over 30 years of teaching service. Thousands of dollars in dues payments. A union appreciation plaque for being part of a team that negotiated Hartford teachers’ last good contract. None of this swayed union officials whose representation I, by law, must accept.
I guess not all Hartford teachers matter to the union.
But Connecticut law also says that teachers’ unions have a legal duty to fairly represent both union members and nonmembers alike.
Laws, like guarantees of free speech rights in an employee handbook, are only effective if someone is willing to enforce them. Fortunately, I found a public interest law firm, the Fairness Center, to help me do just that.
Last summer, I filed a complaint against the union for denying my arbitration request based on my membership status and against the school district for mandating union approval before it will engage in arbitration. Connecticut’s labor relations board heard my case this month.
The reality is, I’m near retirement, and I’d like to smoothly sail into it. But Hartford teachers deserve to have our First Amendment rights protected and to receive fair representation from the union that represents all of us.
I hope my litigation clears my name and pays off for all teachers in the years to come. Until then, I’ll continue to light the right fire in my students’ learning experience.
John Grande is a P.E. teacher in Hartford, Connecticut.
The author’s viewpoints are their own and do not necessarily represent those of the Fairness Center.