Teacher, organizer, honoree

Michael Crowley

Photo by Larry Dalton

Michael Crowley was part of the original faculty at 32-year-old Cosumnes River College, where he still teaches English. Before that, he was a teacher at Rio Linda High School. Thousands of students have passed through his classroom. At the same time, he’s also helped hundreds of his fellow teachers improve their pay and working conditions by helping found the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers in 1978, and playing an active role in the union ever since. On Saturday, the California Federation of Teachers thanked Crowley for his hard work by awarding him the Ben Rust Lifetime Achievement Award, its highest honor. Crowley last week shared his thoughts and observations with SN&R on the state of his profession.

Is there a crisis in education?

As of Tuesday evening [Election night], a big crisis that we were having in the Los Rios District was resolved with the passage of Measure A. We’ve been so crowded. The classroom I just came from before this interview was a portable they bought used for the opening of the campus back in 1970. It was just falling apart then, and they patched it together and kept it going. Hopefully now it will be disposed of, but in Los Rios, that’s been a growing crisis over the years.

What about all the current hand-wringing over the quality of education?

It’s been so long since I was in K-12 that I can really only speak for the community college situation, but I find that we really do have a quality system. It used to be surprising to me, but it’s common now, to have our students who transfer into the CSU or UC systems come back and tell us this is where the real teaching took place. This is where the classes were smaller, this is where the professor was the real teacher, and so on.

Does California undervalue its community colleges?

Obviously, but I think the local community does too. The fact that we went through two of these bond elections—this was the third—and even this one wouldn’t have passed if it hadn’t been for the change in the percentage needed. Yeah, I really think the community undervalues the system.

What is your legacy?

I’ve had two careers in education. One has been as a teacher. One has been in faculty leadership. Which is the more important? As a teacher, it’s been year after year of seeing student growth and seeing student improvement. And now, having taught in the same neighborhood for 32 years, there’s a constant meeting of people who I’ve taught. I constantly run into people who say, ‘Don’t you remember me?’ just because I’ve been around for so long. After 32 years, with 125 students a semester, it adds up.

And what about the role that unions play in education?

When I first started teaching, as a high-school teacher, we had no benefits, zero. Our pay was low. We had very little control over what went on. The administration had the final word on everything. This is what got me involved. I was of the opinion then, and even more so now, that what’s really important is what goes on in the classroom. And one of the most vital elements to what goes on in the classroom is teacher morale.

If a teacher feels burdened by administrative rules and regulations, or doing half the administration’s work, it really detracts from the ability to go into the classroom and be there 100 percent as the teacher for your students. That’s what got me interested in union work, and it’s been behind everything I’ve done in union work. The unions have made it possible for the teachers in this state to have reasonable salaries, to have good benefits, and at the community college level, to have a great deal of academic self-determination.

Are you hopeful about the future of education?

Always. I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t hopeful. Education, like everything else that relies on public funding, has to deal with ups and downs depending on who’s in power. There are always low moments, but there are always high moments, too.