On her LinkedIn profile, recently-elected President of the Salem Teachers Union Beth Kontos describes herself thusly:
"I am an educator seeking to keep public schools free from charter and private takeovers. Public schools should be a place for all students to learn and grow. I am working to eliminate high stakes standardized testing from the public schools in the United States and to push the profiteers out of our schools."
While this is clearly a lofty and obstacle-strewn mission, Kontos has the passion, skills, and local connections to make a serious go at it.
After working in technology for many years, Kontos began to feel uninspired and to look for something more meaningful. As she had taught Sunday school for 12 years while her children were young, Kontos had experience in the classroom and knew what profound differences quality teachers could make.
"I realized that those hours of Sunday school preparation and teaching each week were a pure joy and the best part of my week," she explains. "So, I decided that it was time to make a switch into education."
While still working and raising a family, Kontos returned to her alma mater of Salem State University to garner her Masters in history. Graduating in 2004, she found opportunities to teach at Lynn Classical High School and then at Salem High School.
"I was fortunate in both schools to find mentors to guide me through the first years in the classroom," Kontos recalls, admitting (but not recommending) that she had begun teaching without enrolling in a student-teaching program."I had to rely on my own child rearing and volunteer experiences to help me," she says, again thanking supportive colleagues like Patti Frey and Bob Bua for guiding her through the challenges of new teacher-dom.
"I fully endorse future teachers going through the traditional methods of teacher preparation"; Kontos adds, noting that she has since completed a series of education pedagogy classes at Salem State and that she is also taking classes to help her more effectively support English Language Learners.
When asked what prompted her to teach history, Kontos ebulliently discusses her love of the Constitution and the Progressive Era in American History and the special place in her heart and her curriculum for labor rights and the Civil Rights Movement. "These topics are intertwined and have continued to be relevant," she maintains.
When asked about Labor in particular, Kontos suggests that many people have become "[so] accustomed to the benefits of the Labor movement...that [they] have taken it for granted and allowed some of the strength of unity slip away."
From mandatory public education to the minimum wage to the weekend, many elements of daily life that all workers count on were won for them by the Labor movement. And yet many now see fit to challenge and even dismember the very organizations that granted them these privileges.
"I began to see the teachers around me become discouraged by negative press and difficult, sometimes unrealistic, working conditions," Kontos says when asked how and why she became actively involved in Union work. After stepping ion mid-year for a retiring vice president, Kontos soon realized that long-time President Joyce Harrington was preparing to retire as well.
"I took this opportunity to run," she explains. "After all, I figured, if not now, when? If not me, who?"
In her new role, Kontos looks forward to building upon the strengths of the past and moving public education and Labor forward
"My personal goal is to join with the voices calling for more strength to the individual workers," she explains, "and less control in the hands of the billionaire families."
What is even more fortunate is that Kontos is far from alone.From AFT MA and Citizens for Public Schools to the North Shore Labor Council and myriad parent groups, Kontos has support in her quest to stop the "testing mania" and end the push for charter schools.
"We must not lift the cap on charter schools," she stresses, admonishing those who would privatize public services and hire those who know little about education to run schools. "Privatization and the testing that comes with it are destroying education across this nation. We have to stop it in Massachusetts then continue the movement...across the country!"
While many decry the "achievement gap," Kontos echoes many in AFT in pointing out that the real gap is an economic one. "The real civil rights violation in education," she suggests, "is that our schools with the neediest students are not funded properly and too much of our budgets are spent on testing instead of direct services to our students."
Instead of spending so much time, money, and other resources on preparing for tests that most often make those who are less fortunate financially feel that way otherwise, Kontos suggests spending more on arts, health, reading and Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) programs, as well as technology and wraparound services for all students.
"I want free afterschool activities and intermural sports for all students," she says, suggesting that the only way students will be able to see the value of taking care of themselves and their world is if things such as physical activity and math and science clubs are available without financial obligation. "We need to encourage the whole child; body, mind, and soul."
While many suggest that public school teachers are unable to provide these services and benefits even when they are "fully funded," Kontos observes that, when teachers are treated with respect, everyone benefits.
"Respect is the number one result every worker wants," she maintains, adding that";being paid a fair wage can translate into respect so we can best support our families."
As the new Local head, Kontos is dedicated to maintaining this respect among her peers and for earning it from those outside as well.
"I will also continue to work so that all our employees receive fair evaluations based on their work in the classroom and not on the results of a test we see as unfair, biased, and out of our control," she says, suggesting that it is "unfair to judge a worker based on the performance of others just as it is unfair to judge a student by an unproven method."
With over a decade of classroom experience behind her and all of her colleagues behind her as well, Kontos looks forward to facing the challenges facing public education and to do all she can to maintain the spirit that makes public education great.
"Communities thrive when our education system works," Kontos observes. "I look forward to the challenges ahead!"