An interview with Mike Crossey
"Know your why" is new PSEA President's motto
For a guy who never intended to become a teacher, Mike Crossey has become as much a part of the public education landscape as a yellow school bus ambling down a country road.
Spending 34 years in the classroom and accumulating seven teaching certificates wasn’t what the young man out of McKees Rocks envisioned when he headed to Duquesne University in the late 1960s. His major in government/political science, with a teaching degree in social studies, was supposed to be a prelude to law school.
But while working in a steel mill shortly after graduation, he won a fellowship from the College of Saint Rose to study learning disabilities. A teaching opportunity opened in 1973 through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, and the next year he became president of the 700-member union. A career was born, one that would take him to Upper St. Clair High School, where he coached freshman football, and then to Keystone Oaks High School. At the latter, he taught at an after-hours alternative school he helped develop for students who were in danger of not graduating.
Crossey, of Mount Lebanon, a father of two and a grandparent of three, took over as PSEA president on Sept. 1 after serving four years as the Association’s vice president.
In an interview with Voice, Crossey talked about his new role, public education in Pennsylvania, and the road ahead.
Q: You are taking over as PSEA president at a very challenging time; arguably the most challenging time in PSEA history. Your thoughts?
A: We definitely have some things that are going to challenge PSEA members and our resources. First of all, we’ve got a governor and a Legislature who are not friendly to public education. They have a different ideology, and I think they are more interested in politics than they are policy. Pennsylvania is still recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
But I also see us having a lot of opportunities. With these challenges, I see this as a time for PSEA to show what it’s really all about. We can be the voice not only of public education, teachers and support professionals, but also of working families.
Yes, there are a lot of challenges out there, but we are educators, and we need to educate policymakers about what is right for public education. And that’s why we are asking all PSEA members to talk about the great programs and success stories in their schools. We need to educate them that we need to invest in public education, not cut it.
Public education is the great American equalizer. Our schools are the gates of opportunity. Our focus must, more than ever, be one which allows every child to succeed, to be the best he or she can be.
Q: Of all the challenges, can you cite one, specifically, that is the most important for PSEA to address?
A: Actually, I’d cite two. The first is the governor’s funding cuts to public education. Pennsylvania schools are the best they’ve ever been. Yes, we still have schools that are struggling. We still have too many dropouts, and too many students underachieving. But let’s look at public education overall. We are number one in the nation in reading at the 8th grade level; we are seventh in the nation in reading at the 4th grade level. In math, we are also in the top 10 at the 4th and 8th grade levels. Seventy percent of our students are going on to higher education. Cutting funding will undermine these achievements, and also cut programs like art and physical education that help educate the whole child. Mentoring and tutoring programs also will be limited.
The second big challenge we face lies in the attacks on the union itself—attacks on collective bargaining, seniority, the right to strike, due process, etc. Collective bargaining makes our system stronger, and our students more successful. We need to protect public education from any attempt to dismantle, privatize or outsource it. Public education should not be for sale. Our bottom line must be about the children we teach, not profits.
Q: You referred to the need to educate policymakers. Is that where the Solutions That Work campaign recently launched by PSEA comes in?
A: Absolutely. PSEA’s Solutions That Work is a proactive campaign similar to Vision 20/20. One of the strengths of PSEA is our ability to look forward. Fortunately, we have great leadership inside our membership, and we have a great staff that does a really good job of researching and putting together ideas. Solutions That Work looks at what really works for kids, what it is that makes our schools as great as they are. It’s a piece that looks at what resources we need to educate our kids. It’s a piece that addresses struggling schools. It’s a piece that we can take to legislators and to the governor’s office and say: “These are solutions that work. We don’t need to cut education, we don’t need to hurt our children. What we need to do is work together to come up with programs that work.’’
Q: Aren’t some of those solutions already in place and part of the reason for the national rankings you previously mentioned?
A: Yes. As much as some people want to bash public education and “those government schools,’’ well, those government schools are doing a pretty good job. As I said, we still have some schools that are struggling, but at the same time Pennsylvania schools are among the best in the nation.
Q: In addition to the data on student achievement, public opinion polls show Pennsylvanians agree with you about the quality of the state’s schools. Significant majorities say they like their local schools and their local teachers. So why is there this drumbeat that public education is failing?
A: I think the drumbeat comes primarily from those who want to privatize public education – often for their own personal gain—and those who want to outsource public education. It’s a shame. If you tell a lie often enough, people actually start to believe it. What we need to do—as members of PSEA, as leaders of PSEA—is to get up and tell the truth: our schools are doing really well, our members are working really hard, and public education in Pennsylvania works. We need to get that message out, and that will be one of the things I emphasize.
Q: What do you say to those who are demonizing teachers and public education?
A: It’s distasteful, it’s wrong, it’s the worst possible thing you could do. We have people all across the state—not just teachers but also our support professionals—who are working really, really hard in our classrooms and our schools. It’s trying to assign blame when we should be asking ourselves, “How do we work together on problems that are common for all of us?’’ We need to work together with law enforcement officials, with parents, and with service support professionals who come into our schools. We need to ask, “What can we do to make every child as successful as he or she can be?’’
I have people say to me, “When are you going to go after Gov. Corbett? I keep telling them I hope I don’t have to do that. His policies are wrong; his policies are not good for public education, but I have no intention of going after Gov. Corbett. What I want to do is sit down with him and work out a budget that is better for Pennsylvania, and work out an education program that is better for all of our students. That said, I will never hesitate to set the record straight and advocate what is right for our schools and members when we think his administration is going down the wrong path.
Q: Teachers can’t do anything about the home environment. Based on your 34 years of teaching, how important is the home environment in the learning process?
A: Positive parental involvement is one of the most critical factors in education. As a teacher, and I taught different students—government, economics, students with learning disabilities, kids with behavior issues—and there wasn’t one case, one incident, where I wasn’t able to work with the parents to help the child succeed. I contacted parents every other week and I’d say, “Johnny did really well this week, or Johnny didn’t do his homework this week. Make sure it’s done by Monday.’’ And I know parents who would ground them. It got to the point where the students knew it was a good thing. I’d have students come in and say, “Mr. Crossey, please send my mom a note home. I want to go out this week.’’ And I’d look for something positive that they had done.
Before school even started, I’d send every parent a note saying, “We are partners in your child’s education.’’
Q: We’ve talked a lot about teachers, and PSEA probably does get more publicly recognized with teachers. But Education Support Professionals are an important part of PSEA and the public education umbrella. Can you talk about those workers?
A: Our Education Support Professionals are critical to the functioning of our schools. Their role is so important, and I feel particularly bad because most of them don’t even make a living wage, and most of them have less contractual protections than teachers. But whether they are driving our kids to school, whether they are feeding our children, whether they are cleaning our schools, whether they are backing up instruction, they are unbelievably crucial to the success of our schools. I’m committed to our ESPs to always work to get them a living wage, to get them the contractual provisions they need to make their jobs more secure, and most important of all, to see they get the respect they deserve for working in our schools with our students.
Q: What attracted you to teaching and public education?
A: I had no intentions of being a teacher. I was planning on being an attorney, and I was enthralled with the political world. As an undergraduate, I studied government and economics and social studies, and got my teaching degree as a backup. But when I student taught, something happened—I liked it. Once I saw that glint in a child’s eye, I was hooked. For me, it was about making a difference. You could see that you made a difference in a child, and that became important.
Q: As you reflect on your days in the classroom, what stands out?
A: I’m not sure it came right away, but as I taught and I would see other teachers become frustrated with the process, with the paperwork, with the lack of support from administrators, I thought it was important to “know your why.’’ Why am I doing what I’m doing? In my case, I could have walked out the door at any time. I could have gone to law school. But to me it was about “know your why.’’ That was to move every child forward, to help them learn, to teach them to be good citizens. On my desk, I had a saying that said “Know Your Why.’’ And my “why’’ was “every child, every day.’’ I thought my job in school every day was to make every child a little bit more successful, feel a little bit better about themselves, know that they had learned something that day, and know that they were a good, appreciated and accepted person. That made me feel good about going to work every day.
Q: What advice do you give young teachers?
A: One, be yourself; two, know your material. But more than that, go into a classroom and do not try to be their friend, try to be their teacher. Always remember the students in your class won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Q: Some members question the political involvement of PSEA. Can you address why it is important for PSEA to have a political role and a political action committee, PSEA-PACE?
A: I’m a true believer in our being involved in the political world. Now, having said that, I don’t think there is one teacher or one support professional who goes to work in our schools and says, “Gee I’m going to get involved in politics.’’ At the same time, if the days ever existed, they are certainly gone when you go into your classroom and close your door and think that politics doesn’t matter. Every single thing about every one of our members’ days is controlled by politics: what time you go to work, how long your lunch break is, whether or not you can leave during the day, what your curriculum is, how much you get paid, what freedoms you have. There isn’t one thing about our work day or work life that isn’t controlled by a politician, whether it’s school board members, whether it’s the Legislature, whether it’s the governor, whether it’s the folks in Washington, D.C. So, we have a choice. We can either let them decide for us, or we can sit at the table and have a conversation with them. I’d rather be at the table than on the menu. The only way we can be involved in those conversations is to be involved in politics, to be involved in PACE.
As last November’s elections showed us, elections have consequences. Right now, we’re seeing elected officials who don’t respect what we do, who don’t value public education the way that we do, and we need to be at that table. Every single member of PSEA should be involved in PACE, should contribute to PACE, and should vote their job.
Q: We’ve talked a lot about the professional Mike Crossey. What do you like to do in your free time?
A: I like to enjoy time with my family—my wife, children, and grandchildren.
Q: And the occasional Steelers game?
A: Not often enough.