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The public face of the New York City teachers union is often that of a political heavyweight engaging in battle with opponents like the mayor and charter school supporters. For many teachers, the union is often something more personal and classroom-focused.

The face of the United Federation of Teachers and its state affiliate, New York State United Teachers, is that of a training organization for many teachers who take courses with the unions and get in-person help in the classroom.

The unions also dispense basic benefits like health and dental insurance along with perks like discounts on movies and theater tickets, group trips to events such as the Philadelphia Flower Show, and legal help when teachers have problems at work or, to a limited degree, if they’re accused of a crime. (NYSUT, which provides both for teachers around the state and members of the UFT, spends about $85 million annually on legal services, which covers the salaries of about 260 union staff members who deal with legal issues.)

After Superstorm Sandy last year, the UFT gave blankets, food and water to thousands of teachers affected by the flooding and power outages and later assisted them with insurance claims. And following a recent student suicide at a school in Washington Heights, the union sent in counselors from its victim support program to talk to teachers there.

These benefits build loyalty—and in some cases are part of what teachers are paying for when they contribute their monthly $100 to the union. But in other cases, the union’s offerings to its members also mesh with its mission and its political platform: The need for more professional development for teachers is a frequent talking point for its leaders, especially as the state introduces more rigorous teacher evaluations that expect teachers to show improvement on the job.

“We’re a membership organization, and supplying services for our members is a foundation issue for us,” said UFT president Michael Mulgrew. “Part of the services you supply your membership is to help them do their jobs.”

“We’re doing it more and more under this administration because [Department of Education officials] don’t seem to care about this stuff,” he added.

The UFT hosts many conferences each year on issues like early childhood and special education at its downtown headquarters. It also sponsors dozens of courses ranging from graduate-level classes that can count toward a master’s degree to workshops on stress management. (Some are offered at the UFT offices, others at partner colleges and universities.) Teachers pay for the classes, but receive discounted tuition.

And for many teachers around the city, the union offers a more personal touch through its role running 130 Teacher Centers, a state-funded program set up inside schools that provides mentoring and coaching, mostly to new teachers.

“I get letters from Mulgrew,” said Kevin Plybon, a high school math teacher at the Community Health Academy of the Heights in Manhattan, a Teacher Center site. “But Maureen is a very visible presence.”

Maureen Meltzer, a former teacher, is an instructional coach who mentors new teachers like Plybon and occasionally works with veterans as they figure out how to manage their classrooms and plan lessons. In Plybon’s first year on the job last year, Meltzer was in his classroom at least once a week, observing, taking notes, and occasionally taking the reins to demonstrate a teaching strategy.

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The program was founded more than 30 years ago after former union president Sandy Feldman lobbied to have the centers enshrined in state law. But the UFT does not actually pay for the Teacher Centers out of its own budget.

Rather, coaches like Meltzer are paid by the school. Individual principals decide whether to host a Teacher Center, which comes with a coach who is devoted exclusively to the staff in their building. Most of the rest of the budget, which includes the training for Meltzer and other coaches, workshops for teachers in schools that host the centers, and funds for computers and other technology, is funded by the state with taxpayer money, not member dues. Still, the UFT plays a prominent role in the running of the Teacher Centers. The director of the program is a union vice president, and the coaches are hired and trained by the UFT.

The principal at the Community Health Academy, Mark House, says Meltzer’s salary is worth it and says she’s the reason that all of his teachers returned to the school this year.

“I got here and thought it was a huge allocation of resources,” he said. “But they can tell Maureen things and she’s not trying to evaluate them … It’s hard to learn when you’re in the process of being evaluated.”

Other principals around the city seem to feel similarly: In addition to the schools that host Teacher Centers, city schools spend about $100 million a year on outside consultants who provide professional development for teachers, including coaching and mentoring.

And Department of Education officials say the Bloomberg administration does care about investing more in teacher development, especially as it launches new initiatives like the evaluations and new standards, known as the Common Core. “The City has invested more than $150 million over the past three years to support teachers, and will continue to do so to support our current strategic focus on helping schools implement the new Common Core standards and, beginning this fall, a new system of teacher evaluation and development,” department spokesperson, Erin Hughes, said in an emailed statement.

Because the union does not control the budget for the Teachers Centers, funding can fluctuate depending on the economy and the mood of the legislature in a given year. This year, for instance, the Teacher Centers had $4 million to spend, down from $8 million the year before. At Community Health Academy, part of the $8 million last year was allocated to buy computers and iPads, which teachers use with students.

“When we have half the budget, we put everything into staffing,” said Catalina Fortino, the UFT’s vice president for education and director of the Teacher Centers. “We didn’t buy technology; we had fewer conferences.”

In some years, including 2010, the centers have operated without any state funds at all.

“Everyone chipped in in all the different departments at the UFT and figured out how to cut things so we could keep the Teacher Centers up and going,” Mulgrew said. Even so, Fortino said the program was forced to work with a skeleton staff. But union officials say that each year, seeking financial support for the Teacher Centers is a major part of the union’s considerable lobbying efforts.

This year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not include any funding for the Teacher Centers in his executive budget proposal. But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is frequently friendly with the teachers unions, asked for more than $10 million in his budget proposal, and lawmakers are likely to include at least some funding for the centers when they pass a budget for the next fiscal year later this week.

Schools may also decide to end their participation in the program because of financial or other reasons. Two years ago, the UFT listed 250 centers in city schools on its website, nearly double the number that exist today. Union officials say the drop was due to federal funding cuts to schools.

Few in education dispute the idea that teachers need support to improve in the classroom. But there is little evidence about what works in on-the-job training for teachers. Many educators agree that conferences and workshops are generally less effective than school-based efforts to train teachers — something Fortino acknowledges. “You don’t change practice just by going to a conference,” she said. “You change it by going into the classroom.”

But the small amount of experimental evidence is mixed on whether instructional coaches, like the ones offered by the Teacher Centers, make a significant difference in how teachers do in the classroom and how students perform on tests. One federally financed study of a program to improve teachers’ ability to teach reading found that coaching seemed to improve teaching strategies, but didn’t have an effect on student scores.

The Teacher Centers recently hired a consultant, Measurement Incorporated, to analyze whether one aspect of the program—a more intensive model of teacher development known as a coaching cycle—was effective. Like much of the research about professional development, the findings were based mainly on surveys of teachers, who reported positive benefits.

“How we’re different from other vendors is we don’t come in with a program,” Fortino added. “It depends on the school. I think the adaptability is one of the selling points.”

On a recent morning at the Community Health Academy, Meltzer visited the classroom of another second-year teacher, Morgann Clark, who had graduated from her mentor program the year before. Clark had asked the coach to sit in on a particularly difficult ninth-grade biology class with a large group of English language learners. After watching Clark teach a lesson on genetics with a computer program in which the students tried to breed dragons with certain traits, like purple skin or long horns, the coach and teacher debriefed.

Meltzer suggested that Clark keep laptops closed during the beginning of class to keep students’ attention trained on her and that she go over vocabulary words. Clark heartily agreed to both ideas.

Then, Meltzer asked about two boys who had struggled during the lesson. “They’re getting way behind,” she said. “Have they been coming to class?”

“No, it’s a big problem,” Clark said. Meltzer said she would talk to their English as a Second Language teacher to see if he would help them catch up on their classwork.

Clark seemed relieved after the talk.

“She’s come into my most difficult classes where I need help,” Clark said. “She’s absolutely a lifeline.”

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Sarah Garland oversees editorial planning and budgeting, edits K-12 stories and manages editorial partnerships with other news outlets. She has worked at Hechinger since 2010, and before that wrote about...

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