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#AFTVoices: Mike Cooney, member of the United Teachers of Lowell, Special Education teacher

Mike Cooney, as described by his coworkers as the “energizer bunny,” took time out of his busy schedule to chat with us. It is well known that being an educator has not been easy, and that is certainly true as we start 2023. Record lows for educator retention, paraprofessionals demanding fair pay for fair work, and students working hard to close reading and math gaps are common themes across the Commonwealth. Mike touches on all this and much more.

“As a Special Education teacher who had challenges as a student, I can relate to someone who has trouble reading or is trying to keep up with the other kids, praying the teacher doesn't call on them,” Mike says. As an educator who is known for going above and beyond, Mike pulls his energy from deep down, knowing well the struggles his students experience too. “A teacher pulled me aside and helped me when I needed it, and I strive every day to make students feel comfortable and good about themselves because it's hard to advocate for yourself.” 

When Mike came to Lowell, he had been teaching in other schools and was new to public schools. It took a paraprofessional mentor to help pull him through. “My first year was a real struggle. The para in my room became my mentor.” Seeing the importance paraprofessionals are to both educators and students, he is compelled to fight for paraprofessional representation and equitable pay. “I was upset to learn that my mentor, and paraprofessionals in general, are paid less compared to teachers. The truth is, paraprofessionals are often the ones who guide many educators through the educational system.” Mike smiles and says, “twenty-seven years later, I’m going strong, and she is still teaching too. I owe her many, many thanks.”

Even before the pandemic, educators across the country were calling for additional

support for everyone involved in the education community. Mike echoes the resources educators still need, especially those working with children who need additional support. “We are stretched thin in Special Ed. Kids who are struggling need support and extra attention. I can’t be in the classroom all the time.” Calls for hiring more educators, paraprofessionals and mental health specialists is still an urgent need. Mike says, “we need to hire more people. Period. Children lost a lot during the pandemic, and there’s just not enough staff to satisfy the gaps students have from online learning. Nothing can replace one on one time. During the first lockdown, I made a little class in my basement for our online lessons, and later I went in every day and taught from the classroom, but it’s very difficult to motivate kids at home.” Mike concludes that while online classes may be fine for some, his students need in-person support to truly succeed. “You can’t replace the classroom. You can try, but the kids I work with need to be in the classroom.” 

In-person classes benefit the students Mike works with, and being an AFT Massachusetts member benefits educators, paraprofessionals and everyone that makes sure the school is a safe and welcoming environment for all. “I’ve been a mentor for new hires and student-teachers for 15 years now, and I tell them if you don’t join the union, you are probably going to be sorry down the road. I love the union. When you need them, they are there for you.” 

Through thick and thin, Mike is there for his students and he knows that AFT Massachusetts is there for him. “If kids have good teachers, supported by their union and respected by their coworkers, they will succeed. COVID may have set us back, but we will move forward because the education system is strong and because our union is strong.”

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