Editor’s note: Reporter Simone Larson is a teacher in District 65 and a union member.
Trisha Baker has worn many proverbial hats. First and foremost, she carried the title of special education teacher for 27 years, including 23 years in Evanston/Skokie District 65. In that capacity, she taught all academic subjects and was an assistant principal for two and a half years.
For six years, she co-chaired the Advancing Student Academic Achievement Committee, formerly known as the Minority Student Academic Achievement Committee. Most recently, as of July 2023, she is the president of the District 65 Educators’ Council (DEC), the local union representing more than 750 teachers.
In a recent interview with the RoundTable, Baker said she hopes to usher in positive change to District 65 through her collaborative leadership style. As president of DEC, she will be released from the classroom to lead the union full time. Baker also is surrounded by a dynamic executive board – a volunteer team of six full-time District 65 educators with many teaching experiences.
Baker, along with her team, stressed that they are committed to the children of District 65.
“If our teachers are not well supported,” she said, “we cannot expect great results from our students. I’m hoping to be part of a mindset shift. We want to continue to keep our students central in this work, and to do this, we must create spaces that allow teachers to be creative. Because the bottom line: Teaching is a calling. Not everybody can do this work. And we have so much talent here in District 65. I want all of these individuals to be able to contribute their gifts.”
Each member of the current executive board comes to the union with passion and energetic purpose, they said.
“For me, it’s about service to others; it’s a labor of love,” said Emily Castillo-Oh, DEC vice president, reading specialist and current instructional coach at Washington Elementary. “I started serving the union 18 years ago, as a brand new teacher, and I have not looked back.”
Avelino Cortez, DEC treasurer and a second grade two-way immersion teacher at Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies, grew up in a working-class family in Chicago. His upbringing shed light on the importance of unions and the value of all parties having a seat at the professional table.
He ran for treasurer in hopes of giving a voice to those who may not have the courage to speak up.
“Teachers,” Cortez said, “have historically been undervalued, underpaid and under-appreciated. So I come here hoping to fight for equity and to help ensure that our educators get what they deserve.”
Elizabeth Jackson – DEC membership chair, reading interventionist and ELA teacher at Nichols Middle School – said she especially appreciates the union because it celebrates the profession and lifts individual voices, allowing teachers to be part of the solution, “because when teachers come together to problem solve, there is absolutely nothing they cannot do.”
Derrick Carlson, the union’s public relations chair and a fourth-grade teacher at Washington, pointed out that DEC holds educators to a higher standard by negotiating contracts with the district that can help implement transformative change.
“Our educator contract actually holds folks accountable,” he said. “It protects professionals from falling prey to the whims of detrimental societal change. It allows us as professionals to be proactive, to create systems that uphold the profession in the best interest of our children, instead of constantly being reactive.”
DEC Secretary Heather Shaffer, who teaches adapted K-8 physical education, and Kelly Post, Region 41 representative and second-grade teacher at Kingsley Elementary, each came to the union work by way of family tradition.
“One day, I just got tired of hearing my colleagues complain [without taking action],” Post said, “and I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to do something about this.‘”
Shaffer emphasized that for her, being part of the union means making it more accessible to all teachers, so that everyone feels collective ownership over their contract.
Some described Baker’s leadership style as quietly observant, but educators said not to mistake that for timidity.
“During my childhood, many mistook me for shy,” Baker said. “But no, I’m not shy. I’m a thinker and observer. Whenever you’re talking to me, as I listen, I’m strategizing creatively. Granted, I’m not combative, but I am also not willing to sit around and let people’s professional rights not be honored. I will stand up for our educators.”
Standing up for teachers means protecting their collective bargaining rights as required under the existing contract, Baker said. Right now, she’s working to build relationships with the upper administration, including Interim Superintendent Angel Turner and new Human Resources chief Tiffany Taylor.
Both DEC and the administration have a responsibility to work together on ways to best educate the children of District 65, according to Baker.
“However,” Baker said, “I have an additional responsibility as union president, and that is to make sure our current contract is being honored. And I’m hearing from buildings that there are things happening that go against our contract.”
Baker has started bringing those concerns to the district’s central office, saying that “As the head of the union, I have to protect the educator’s professional environment. That hugely impacts our children.”
“It’s important to note,” Jackson said, “that any chaos the community may have perceived from the teachers over the past few years has not been internal union chaos. The chaos they may have perceived is due to the fact that upper administration is oftentimes not adhering to our current contract.”
Baker also stood firm on this point, adding: “This DEC board is not interested in justifying or carrying the weight of any past DEC leadership. We can only move forward.” Blaming past leadership would be unproductive, and there are “no excuses” for the new executive board, she said.
This new team also has a big task looming just around the corner. The DEC contract expires at the end of this school year, and negotiations are scheduled to begin in 2024.
How does the team plan to get in touch with membership about key issues ahead of negotiations?
“My goal,” Baker said, “is to sit down with as many DEC members as I can. I have the freedom to do that because this position is full release, and so I want to conduct listening sessions in the buildings whenever I can.”
Carlson and Castillo-Oh added that surveying teachers and educator outreach is a vital part of contract negotiations. Every round of negotiations, though, includes core issues that rank-and-file teachers care deeply about, like working conditions, in-school planning time, living wages and workload, according to Castillo-Oh.
“Bottom line, we are professionals, and we want to be treated as such,” she said.
Baker said she fully grasps the gravity of these upcoming negotiations and refuses to rush it. “I may be slower than people want, and that is because I don’t make uninformed choices,” she said.
Shaffer, who was involved in past negotiations, noted that this year feels unique because District 65 is currently led by an interim superintendent and interim chief financial officer.
“We are coming to the end of a long and strong contract,” Jackson said, “and it is a whole new world once you open the door to bargaining.”
While the union and the administration will never agree on everything, collaboration and coming to a consensus are key to the process, according to Castillo-Oh and Cortez. “Nothing can be accomplished” without working across the aisle and making compromises, Post said.
“But I also think it’s important to keep in mind that we, the educators of District 65, are here for the long haul, and in looking closely at upper administration over the past five years, we’ve seen a revolving door of employees leaving,” she added. “This has trickled down to our building leaders, which has trickled down to our teachers. We, the teachers, are here. We have stayed in this community, and we care deeply about these kids. And we are going to do our best to do right by them.”
Jackson said she wants to know who in the central office is serious about staying at District 65 for the long haul. “Who plans to invest in this community and stick around?” she asked.
When it comes to this DEC executive board, its members said they are committed to achieving equitable outcomes for the children in District 65, and that they are dedicated to elevating the teaching profession here in Evanston.
“Once anyone becomes what they are in life, it is at least partially because they had an educator who touched their lives in one way or another,” Castillo-Oh said. “And due to the importance of this job, we are fundamentally unwilling to put our values of what we stand for as an organization in jeopardy. It simply will not happen.”
“This executive board, as a whole, is very talented,” Baker added. Collectively, the group has 119 years of experience in District 65 schools, in many different positions. “And this team will do whatever we have to do in order to move forward on behalf of the educators and children of District 65.”
Editor’s note: A photo caption accompanying this story has been updated to correct Kelly Post’s position with the District 65 Educators’ Council.