Advocating for Public Education and Educators: A Teacher’s Activism Inside and Outside of Classrooms

Telly Tse

Special Education Teacher/ National Education Association Director for California

(La Crescenta, CA)

Telly Tse at his desk in his classroom

Telly Tse was my college classmate.  I met him as a freshman living in the same dormitory house.  There were about ten of us who hung out regularly.  Telly and I bonded over the love of piano.  We even learned the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique together on the dorm keyboards.  Telly was active as a leader even back then, eventually becoming the dormitory president. 

My daughters and I visited him at Beverly Hills High School, where he taught special education, on a bright Monday morning in January.  He came to get us at the parking lot and walked us through construction-ridden campus which resembled that of a college.  He made arrangements so we could have his classroom all to ourselves.

Hazel:  How long has it been!!  So great to see you again.  Tell me how you got started with teaching.

Telly:  Good to see you, too!  After graduation, I taught at a SAT preparation academy just as a temporary gig but I was surprised how much I enjoyed the process of explaining concepts and bringing understanding to students.  As I continued to look for long-term employment, one of the places that would hire me without me obtaining a teaching credential was a nonpublic school.

Hazel:  What is a nonpublic school?  That’s not the same as a private school?

Telly:  That’s correct.  Nonpublic schools are schools for students with severe emotional disabilities who cannot thrive in regular public school settings.   The class sizes are much smaller in nonpublic schools than in other schools to meet the needs of the students.  Because they usually have a shortage in credentialed teachers, they sometimes have to hire teachers with no prior training when in reality they are in need of the ones with the most experience to work with these kids properly.

Hazel:  How did you like teaching at a nonpublic school? 

Telly:  I worked at Linden Center, a K-12 nonpublic school (which has since closed down) for two years.  The student-to-teacher ratio was great, about 10 to 1.  90% of the time, the students were behaviorally fine but during the other 10%, they might exhibit negative behaviors and have adverse reactions to staff direction in the classroom and that was the challenge for us as educators.  That being said, I enjoyed the experience enough that I enrolled in California State University, Los Angeles to earn a teaching credential and masters degree in Special Education.  

Hazel:  Describe to me the teaching credentialing process. 

Telly:  I was working full-time while going to school and it took me 4 years total to complete the credentialing and masters degree program.  I took 3-4 classes per quarter.  During this time, I was hired to work in a public school district. A few years later, I was hired as a special education teacher here at Beverly Hills High School.

Hazel:  That must have been so hard to work and go to school at the same time!  Since I don’t know too much about special education, can you tell me more about the students you serve and what you do?

Telly:  I’m happy to explain.  There are mainly two levels of special education students we work with in the public school setting:  Mild to moderate and moderate to severe students.  I teach the former at the school.  My students usually have specific learning disability/disabilities such as auditory processing, visual processing, attention deficit, and/or health impairment of various types.  Some of my students take mainstream regular classes whereas students with moderate to severe disabilities are usually in a self-contained classroom the entire day.

Among the students I worked with, there are some that work hard but need lots of support to succeed academically and then there are those who have the ability academically but have behavior issues which impede their learning. 

Hazel:  How many students do you teach at a time?

Telly:  I usually teach students ranging from 4 to 15 in a given period.  I teach a class called General Study, which means I provide support for students’ other classes.  They range from having remedial to Advanced Placement classes.

Telly is an avid marathon runner. Even during his recent run, he advocated for his fellow educators!

Hazel:  Give me an example of a situation you feel you’ve made a big difference.

Telly:  As any teacher, when I see a motivated student who wants to do well, I try even harder to help him/her.  There was this one student who wasn’t strong academically due to some processing deficits but she worked extremely hard.  She always took the maximum seven periods of class every semester, meaning she had to come to school by 7 a.m.  She was never late.  Knowing she needed it, she used the extra time given to her during the General Study class to her advantage.  She made sure to ask appropriate questions and always asked me to help her as much as possible.  She took my General Study class for all four years of high school and is now a student at California State University, Northridge majoring in accounting. 

Hazel:  She sounds amazing!  I know you have two daughters at home.  How do you have energy and enthusiasm left for your own kids after a long day at school teaching special education students?

Telly:  I learned to not take things that happen in my classroom personally and take them home with me.  Sometimes educators can feel like they are on an island by themselves in the classroom.  This is why it is important to maintain communication with other teachers to provide and get support.  I’ve been fortunate to have teacher friends at school that I could speak to about if I encounter challenges.

Hazel:  What are some of the things that make you feel so passionate about being an educator?

Telly:  I get fired up when I see students not getting support or education they need.  I also feel compelled to act when teachers are not being treated right.  Not surprisingly, this is why I became active with the teacher’s union.

Hazel:  This is a great way to shift gears and talk about your role with the union.  Tell me more about the union and what you do for it.    

Telly:  There are two national unions for teachers in the United States.  One is AFT (American Federation of Teachers) and the one I belong to is the NEA (National Education Association).  AFT and NEA both work to advocate for educators and public schools in our country.

Hazel:  What are some of the services these unions provide?

Telly:  The services include bargaining for teacher salaries and benefits bargaining, protection against legal actions and filing grievances for alleged contractual violations by the district.

Hazel:  I want to ask you a potentially sensitive question.  I feel that sometimes teacher’s union rules are in conflict with meritocracy.  What are your thoughts about the union rules to protect the rights of the teachers based more on seniority than performance?

Telly:  Basing certain rights on seniority can definitely have its flaws especially when it comes to compensation and job assignment.  No rule can be perfectly fair.

I want to give you an example of what I mean.  In Beverly Hills Unified School District, the principals have direct control over teacher assignment at their school and almost all teachers are contractually obligated to work 7.5 hour days.  There were two candidates for an open teaching position at our school.  Both had the necessary qualifications for that position. One of them worked the standard 7.5 hours and was very high on the seniority list while the other candidate worked 12 hours a day, was great at what he did but was in his first year of teaching.  The position was awarded to the more senior person.  On one hand, it seemed unfair that the person who worked harder did not get that position. At the same time, this helped to protect employees from feeling they had to work unreasonably longer hours to succeed. You want to reward people who work hard but also help teachers to keep their work and life balance and protect them from having to perform uncompensated work.

Hazel:  I can see your point.  I guess there is really no easy solution.

Telly:  Here’s an example of what our union has done for our district.  In 2014, the Beverly Hills School District contributed only $7,000 annually for health and welfare benefits for each teacher.  Teachers with families of four or more often had to pay approximately $1,000 out of pocket each month for the health plans they enrolled in.  Through negotiations with the district, health and welfare contributions increased to over $10,000 annually. Part of the tradeoff was allowing the district to increase TK (Transitional Kindergarten) to 3rd grade class size to go up to 23 students with extra pay for teachers. $10,000 a year in health and welfare benefits is a significant improvement but many employees in the district still pay out of pocket. We will continue to work on this area.

Hazel:  I guess there is no free lunch.  I know we need to keep bringing in great teachers to succeed as a society.  What do you think is needed to change to keep bringing great people to the profession of teaching??

Telly:  Obviously, the funding needs to be better.  In order to get proper support for teachers, we need to elect people in the government who will fight for public education.  Luckily, I’ve seen increased activity recently at all levels.

Hazel:  Tell me about your specific role with the union?

Telly:  There are 180 directors from all over the country for the NEA and I was elected in 2019 as one of the 16 directors for California.  I represent public school teachers from 6 congressional districts in California.  I make site visits to the schools that belong to my congressional districts and have meetings with the educators there to hear about issues they are facing.  Three times a year, I travel to Washington, DC to visit the offices of these six congressional districts and discuss legislation and current educational issues.

Telly and his adorable daughters during his NEA Director campaign

Hazel:  Congratulations on winning the election!  What an honor!  What are some of the issues you are trying to address or causes you are trying to support through your post?

Telly:  There are two major issues I’m working on.  First, I’m pushing for fully-funded special education.  I want to ensure that all the appropriate amount of money is allocated to special education.  Currently, a lot of my schools have to reallocate money from general funds of the school to support special education.  A school district can be held liable if they deny services to any student with special needs eligible to receive them. One of the ways that schools can receive more funding to address this area is through a ballot initiative called Schools & Communities First which CTA is working on putting in the November 2020 ballot. California voters can learn more about this at http://www.cta.org/taxfairness.

Second, I’m trying to make sure to protect the welfare of students and educators in charter schools.  Charter schools come in many sizes and shapes but many are formed as a business venture and do not have to abide by the same rigorous regulations that public schools do to ensure students and teachers are protected.  We are trying to make changes so that charter schools have to follow the same regulations as other public schools and also encourage the educators there to unionize so their rights are protected. 

Thank you, Telly, for what you do for our public education system for both teachers and students.  I know there are many problems in our current education system and I hope with enough people who care about it and want to take actions, things will get better.  I look forward to following your career in education and also the positive changes you will continue to bring within and outside of classrooms.

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