The Michael Mulgrew Hour: U.F.T. head mocks reform, plays teacher-embitterment for laughs

Michael Mulgrew. (uft.org)
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This year's spring conference of the United Federation of Teachers fell the day after Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a budget that would lay off 5 percent of teachers. The mood among the attendees at the Midtown Hilton was accordingly edgy.

After 7:30 breakfast and a morning of workshops and panel sessions, conference attendees reconvened in the Grand Ballroom for a Gala Luncheon. Aminda Gentile, the conference chair, welcomed to the dais UFT officers and their guests. When the union’s president strode onto stage, she spoke in indulgent italic: “Michael Mulgrew.” Our president, she said, “who is just the best.”

Michael Mulgrew has a perpetually creased brow and large lips amid goatee-components that give his lower face a rubbed-raw look. He is balding, but what hair grows on his head and chin is shorn to a uniform length.

“How’s the salad?” he demanded, when he took the podium after speeches from Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Wisconsin State Senator Jon Erpenbach. The crowd seemed uncertain how to respond. “Just checking,” Mulgrew said.

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“I have to cook tomorrow, because it’s Mothers Day,” he said. “Happy Mothers Day.”

Was the salad something he should try to cook, he asked the crowd? The apparent consensus was that no, he should not. The salad, to be fair, seemed more popular than the dish sitting beside it: a pastry hockey puck that tasted booze-soaked and ambiguously fruity. This item went largely untouched.

Following Mothers Day on the agenda was the newly minted New York City schools chancellor Dennis Walcott—who had, according to Mulgrew, had “met and actually spoken with more teachers, and said more nice things about teachers, in his very very short tenure than the last two chancellors combined.”

Walcott reassured the crowd that he had a “long-term relationship” with Mulgrew: they sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, he said, but they are never disagreeable. Theirs is a respectful, mature sort of manly bond; the kind built on communication. They talk and email all the time, Walcott said. Still: there must be boundaries. Walcott added that he had planned to be out of town for the conference, and that the helpful Mulgrew had volunteered to speak on his behalf. Walcott had vetoed this scheme.

“Now, do you think I’ll allow Michael to say my words?” he asked the crowd. He had come himself, but he would be heading straight to the airport after speaking.

Mulgrew returned to the podium.

“Now for the president’s speech,” he said. “So what happened yesterday is we had the speech, and the staff, who I want to thank, was working on it. And I said—and this is tough, because they’d been working on it a couple weeks—I said, I really appreciate the work you’ve been doing, but for me to stand at the spring conference tomorrow, with all that going on, and give a prepared speech I don’t think works,” he continued. “Just working off a prepared speech will not work, for me, right now. So despite a lot of people’s objections in the union—because they say, ‘Michael, when you go off the cuff, boy, sometimes you go off the cuff’—I said, ‘I know the press will be in the room, and if I go off the cuff, then that’ll be that.’ But that’s what I’m going to do today, so is that all right with all of you?”

Of course it was.

“I want to teach a little lesson,” he said, after his off-the-cuff summary of the last year in New York City public education. “Is that OK?”

A collection of poster-size word cards had been placed at each table. Mulgrew asked the audience to distribute them among tablemates. “Just let me know when you’re ready,” he said. “We have some of the students in front screaming that they’re ready; they don’t understand that we have to wait for everybody.” As the crowd shuffled papers, he smiled, presiding affably. “OK,” he said. “Shhh. In order to do a word-play game, we have to be able to hear me.”

This was the game: on Mulgrew’s cue, audience members would hold aloft their cards, each bearing a buzzword favored by educational reformers. Then Mulgrew would discuss the word. The first buzzword was “Merit Pay.” “I don’t even understand why we’re still talking about this word!” Mulgrew said.

He flicked his tongue a little; he started to get his fingers going as he riffed on the misguided nature of merit pay. The second word was “Differentiation.”

“OK, differentiation. I love this one—‘differentiation,’” he said. “They had about 300 teachers in an auditorium, and they were teaching everyone to differentiate the same way.”

“Rigor” followed (“They can’t say a sentence without using this word two or three times!” he said. “We assume that we want to make it good! Stop saying the word ‘rigor’ on everything!”), then “Data.”

Now Mulgrew was building momentum, beginning to build baroque jargon masterpieces. When the cards reading “Test Prep” went in the air, they were met with the biggest boos yet. “What should we say about test prep?” Mulgrew began. “When we do our test prep we will do it based off of data points from our data binder. We will differentiate it rigorously for each of our students. And we will make sure to evaluate those test scores in the proper way, so that we can then design all new test-prep to use on our students again next year.”

“Value-added” proved a bit of an anticlimax, but at this point verbal horseplay had gotten the crowd all riled up. Someone in the corner was excited, Mulgrew noted. “Is it your birthday?” he asked. If so, he said, he would arrange for a round of song.

Walcott sat silent while the room, including the rest of the dais, begin to applaud Mulgrew’s promise to take the fight against layoffs to the streets. “No means no!” they chanted. “No means no!”

“Will you speak truth to those lies?” Mulgrew shouted. “Will you lie down in the darkness, or will you stand up in the light?”

“Enough is enough!” the crowd began to chant. City Comptroller John Liu was among the attendees who were standing. Walcott had to catch his flight. He shook hands with Mulgrew, and left.

Afterward, Mulgrew explained his choice to improvise his speech—something he does frequently, although generally not at events like the conference.

“Usually in an environment like today, it would be more formal,” he said, “but I didn’t think that it was called for today. I thought it would be inappropriate.”

He admitted that he was surprised when “Test Prep” got the loudest response. The teachers had been prepping for the state’s English Language Arts test all week.

“I should have known,” he said.

“Great speech, boss!” a young communications aide told him.

Mulgrew leaned in. “Figured you’d like it,” he said.