Erika Hughes is a teacher at Gardendale Elementary School and has been teaching for 20 years. The Gardendale News talks with Erika in a wide-ranging interview that touches on how she started in teaching to what issues she believes are facing teachers and staff in schools and how she would help solve them if elected President of the American Federation of Teachers for Central Alabama.
Treye Hanner: Tell our readers about your journey to teaching. When did you realize that you wanted to have a career in teaching?
Erika Hughes: My journey to becoming a teacher began at an early age. As a child I would play school, be the teacher very influential in growing my dream throughout the years. In my first year at The University of Alabama, I did one semester in the College of Communication and quickly realized that I was fighting something that I was definitely called to do. The rest is history.
Treye Hanner: How has teaching changed since you first started teaching years ago?
Erika Hughes: I have definitely changed since I first started teaching. Thank goodness for grace. College doesn’t prepare you for what really goes on in the classroom. It is definitely something you have to learn once you are in there. I have learned not to sweat the small stuff. I am more laid back than when I started.
My teaching style is more hands on and more of an open mind when it comes to teaching. Technology is a huge part of the classroom now and when I first started we didn’t have much technology in the classroom. Now we use technology in almost every lesson.
Treye Hanner: Has the pandemic changed teaching long-term?
Erika Hughes: I feel like the pandemic has changed teaching and education long term. The first big change is everyone moving to a 1:1 device district. This is where every student has a computer. We definitely were behind times when it came to technology, so this made us make that change immediately. This is huge for students because it forced all of us to work on our digital literacy and agility.
I feel like it is going to take a while to recover and catch up academically. Students were disengaged during distance learning and it has caused a major gap in academics. No matter what we did during the pandemic it still was not the same as being face to face in a classroom.
Many students are 1-2 years behind. Expectations aren’t changing or being adjusted. Standards are still expected to be taught even though students are missing the standards that lead up to the ones that are being taught.
We as teachers are having to find ways to bridge those gaps and continue to teach what is expected for that grade level.
Treye Hanner: Introduce our readers to the American Federation of Teachers. It is a union for teachers?
Erika Hughes: AFT is the second largest teachers’ labor union in America. It is a union of professionals that champions fairness, democracy, economic opportunity, high-quality public education, health care and public services for our students, their families and our communities. Our local, Central Alabama AFT #2143, was chartered in 1971. We represent 12 districts that include Jefferson County, Blount County, Shelby County, Trussville, Homewood, St. Clair County, Pell City, Leeds, Cullman, Bessemer, Tarrant and Vestavia. Their purpose is to be a strong, unified advocating body for teachers and staff.
Treye Hanner: The teaching profession is losing good people in the profession and many believe will continue to face difficulty in finding teachers moving forward. What are your thoughts on this and what can a union like AFT do to help?
Erika Hughes: It breaks my heart that things have gotten so out of hand. Teachers are exhausted, exasperated, overwhelmed and disrespected. They are having to go above and beyond their required duties without receiving the respect and compensation they deserve. We have to do something to lessen the amount of stress and expectations placed on educators and staff. We have to fight and stay vocal until things change. We have to stand our ground and demand change.
Treye Hanner: What are the biggest challenges to the teaching profession today? How can AFT help solve these challenges?
Erika Hughes: Time is a huge disadvantage in education. There is never enough time for educators and staff to get done what they need to do. However, the workload and expectations continue to grow, and we have to work with school districts to make time for teachers to be able to get their job done.
We also have to take away the extra duties that are being expected to do. If they continue to be required to do them, then staff should get compensated for them. It is our job as a union to make sure voices are heard and the powers to be understand what is happening every day in the education world.
Treye Hanner: You are running for President of the Central Region of AFT. What made you decide to run?
Erika Hughes: There are several reasons that I decided to run for President. Last December I was contacted by several people and they asked me to consider running. They wanted to see someone run that had a strong voice and a desire to make a difference. It was at that time I began to pray about it. I was a part of the first Teacher Leader program several years through our local where I found my voice. It was at that point I knew that my long term goal was to be President one day. I love to help people and stand for what is right. I want to work with our executive board and staff reps and bring about great victory in education.
Treye Hanner: What would be your role if elected?
Erika Hughes: My role would be to oversee our local and represent our members in the 12 districts that we represent. I am very passionate about AFT and what our local should do for our members. My leadership style is to incorporate good ol’ southern hospitality into our local and how we take care of our members. For example, I will have a large presence in our schools and board meetings. I am determined to hit the ground running. I have a list of goals that I would like to accomplish right off.
Treye Hanner: How do you believe you can help change the issues that teachers face in their jobs each day?
Erika Hughes: I have many different issues that members have reached out to me about. I have a list of goals that I would like to accomplish in the beginning. My number one concern is member involvement and taking care of our members. It is also extremely important to me that we have transparency in our local, but also have a voice in it as well. We wouldn’t exist without our members. I will not just be an office president. I will be in the schools and board offices. I want to meet with members and know what is going on in their district. Not all districts are the same or have the same problems.
It is very important to me that we represent every district the same. I have a detailed plan broken down by certified and classified employees on our Facebook page I plan to have biweekly meetings with all 12 districts that we represent so that can stay on top of what is going on.
My plan is to do these myself so that I know what is happening and will be involved. I will drive to each district so that members will not have to travel far to meet and I will also offer a Zoom for those that can’t attend in person. It is not fair to have a meeting at the office or in Birmingham every time because that isn’t conducive to everyone’s location.
Someone I respect very much always says union staff are like a meteorologist for education. We have to stay involved and on top of things in order to predict what is coming so we can try to prevent it or get changes made.
After meeting with members, I then want to meet once a month with all 12 superintendents to help them understand what is really going on in schools. Let’s face it, they just know what they have been told and that is not always what it looks like. I feel like if we build those relationships, it will help everyone.
I also know that members can’t know what is going on if we don’t get together. I will have quarterly meetings to give updates about our local. I will also offer a virtual option for those that can’t attend in person. Again transparency and communication is extremely important to me. This is our local and everyone should have a part in it.
There are some things that I would like to accomplish starting off with some departments that I know are pressing. Starting off with teachers. I know that so much has been put on top of them and the expectations are absurd. So much is expected and there is not enough time to get it all done during a school day.
I want to start with working with district leaders on protecting breaks. That is the only break they get for the day and many days that is taken from them for meetings or trainings. How are they supposed to get what they need done or even take a break mentally?
Also teachers are very grateful for PD days and also eDays, but to have to sit in meetings all day doesn’t help accomplish anything that they need to accomplish. We need time to work with our grade level and in our classrooms getting prepared for students because they are the reason we are here, not sitting in a workshop or training that is not beneficial.
Time is the biggest problem for teachers and staff and what time we have must be protected and respected. Respect must start from within before it can be gained from people outside of education.
Secondly, I want to lobby in Montgomery for teachers, staff, bus drivers, aides and nurses to get compensated for covering unfilled classes or extra bus routes due to not having a sub driver. I was with the current AFT President the week COVID shut down our schools to start this process and had to postpone. Now more than ever we need this. Many people are giving up breaks to cover classes, watching multiple classes, running numerous routes and aren’t being compensated for it.
This must change.
Another pressing issue for teachers is the new Teacher Observation Tool that administrators are having to use to evaluate teachers. This is not a feasible tool to use. Administrators would have to stay all day with one teacher in order to evaluate a teacher properly using this tool. We all know that isn’t possible.
On the tool there is nowhere an administrator can check or notate that the dimension was not applicable. It only states “Not Evident” and only allows you to score a 1. So depending on how long the administrator stays, that teacher could score 1’s because there are so many expectations and not all can be done in a short setting.
A huge issue that needs to be addressed are subs! I mean where do you even start? Something has to change. We need to look at the agencies that are being used and the fill rate. We also need to look at incentives that need to be offered in order to attract more people into subbing.
Trying to recruit subs must be at the top of every district’s list because when there is not a job filled it effects everyone at the school.
I want to grow and utilize our retiree chapter. Currently we just have a handful of members. It is my goal to grow that chapter to record numbers. Our retirees are experts in education. They have given their time.
Many of them are willing to step in and help in classrooms. I want members to be able to call the office and have a list of retirees that are in their area that are more than willing to come in their classroom and help them.
I have also heard from many members how disappointed they are with the professional development that is offered through our local. I have already spoken with several professionals that are willing to help us vamp up our professional development. I will work hard to provide what our members need to help make them successful at their job. If we aren’t offering it and we need it, I will make it happen.
I also would like to request that superintendents form committees where classified and certified staff are represented from all schools in their districts to work together to improve problems and bring to light things that are keeping them from being successful in their job. Many times the people that make decisions don’t understand how what they are asking to be done looks inside a school environment. It may sound good and look good on paper but not be once it is implemented.
I know that my work is cut out for me. I am ready for the challenge and ready to make a difference. It is time that education employees have the respect we all deserve.