Cerf Session Highlights Final Day of NJEA Convention

By David Cruz

The highlight on the final day of the annual NJEA convention was this morning’s session with Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. The state’s education chief has not always been welcome at these types of gatherings, but today, everyone agreed to keep things friendly.

“These are very important public policy issues and we had a very respectful discussion about some issues,” said Cerf. “I learned some from them and I hope they learned a little bit from me.”

Teachers here expressed the most concern with the core curriculum standards, which cover what their students should be learning and the implementation of the new evaluation system, which covers how effectively teachers are teaching. For many, the frustration they brought into the room is pretty much the frustration they had when they left.

“I’ve been teaching 27 years and the last four years have been the most disheartening to me,” confessed Hopewell Valley teacher Heidi Olson. “I have never in my life ever felt that I was disrespected or treated as a leper as I have the last four years.”

Montclair teacher Jennifer Bailey told us she was reluctant to talk because she might not have anything positive to say.

“I think that some of the views that Commissioner Cerf expresses are a little skewed and I’ll leave it at that,” she said.

NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer is just starting his term. He says, so far, Cerf has been open to collaboration, which leaves him hopeful that the next four years with this administration could be an improvement over the last four.

“I’m at the table. I do not ask him to lay down any of his weapons. I ask no prerequisites for that meeting. I hope that he’s not going to ask any of mine,” he said. “You came to me and talked to me and I didn’t have to say you had to do this or that to do it, so that’s what I look forward to. Put their agendas aside and let’s sit down and do business.”

Cerf says there has been progress over the last four years. He points to tenure reform as an accomplishment, but as they boarded buses to lunch and some afternoon entertainment, teachers were wary, and weary, of a relationship that they say has made their already tough jobs even more difficult.

With the governor’s race over and a new leadership team at the union, there is the possibility for a reboot to this relationship. As one teacher put it, things are as bad as they’ve ever been but that means they can only get better.