A.J. Duffy: Teachers’ choice


It tells you a lot about what A.J. Duffy brings to the game that he got his job as president of United Teachers Los Angeles by trouncing the incumbent, which had never before happened at the union.

Just Call Me Duffy could have been cast for the movie version of his job. A former Brooklyn kid with a “you and whose army?” attitude, the man who once taught in L.A.’s inner city wearing T-shirts and chinos now wears two-tone Miami mobster shoes and snazzy suits to lead a teachers union of 40,000 members, more than some school districts have students.

But ask him about which of the many souvenirs and awards in his office means the most to him, and he steers you to two framed papers -- a paean to his wife, Carol, “the first lady of my heart,” and a thank-you letter from a former middle school student of his who’s “like a daughter”to him. Duffy can’t read either one without the waterworks starting up.


The lousy economy has landed some punches on schools and teachers, but UTLA just scored a knockout: Of 30 schools up for new leadership in a district reform, 22 of them were awarded to groups of teachers to fix, not to outside charters.

I’d characterize that as a victory, wouldn’t you?

Very much so, because in part it gives us what we’ve been asking for: control over the schools, along with other stakeholders. Let us create the curriculum; let us create the professional development and decide how to use the money. We get blamed for everything, but we’ve never been in control.

Sounds like put-up-or-shut-up time.

It is, definitely. Now we have to transform public education.

Is there such a thing as a good charter school?

There’s some really good charters. The reason they’re excellent is because there is a true collaboration between teachers and administrators. As long as [a charter] has a union which protects teachers’ rights and helps teachers be true partners with administrators, then I have no problem.


Everyone’s frustrated with the state of public schools -- aren’t charters generated by frustrated parents?

Charters are really generated by private enterprise that offers parents another alternative, which is a good thing, but they don’t generate the community ties that public schools do. At the same time, the playing field is not level. I’d like to see charter schools having to operate [as public schools do]. Let them come up with a plan on how they’re going to deal with second-language and special-ed and students they don’t want.

The bottom line: We’ve gone as far as we can with charters. If you really want to strengthen this country, you have to fix public education, and it shouldn’t be on the backs of so-called bad teachers. Bad teachers should be fired -- I got it. But if you let teachers and other stakeholders at schools hire teachers, you won’t get bad teachers. Because teachers are teachers’ most severe critics.

But at the end of the day, bad teachers should no longer be teaching, right?

I agree. What we’re missing is the criteria. How do we help those people who are not doing a good job to get better? How do we give them guidance? Then, how do we create a system to counsel them out of the profession? We’re beginning to look at programs around the country.

Your family in Brooklyn was well-off, but you struggled because of a learning disability. How did you manage?


For me to get help, the only classification at that point was brain disorder, and my parents weren’t having it. My father was very successful; I grew up in wealth, but I was out on the streets. I was a heroin addict for many years. It wasn’t a great childhood. One of the things that bothers me is the fact that [my father] never got to see me as a success, and that kind of weighs on me.

Between the ages of 25 and 30, I taught myself how to read. I chose five or six books that I read over and over again with a dictionary next to me. Ancient history -- I love that whole thing between Carthage and Rome; I’m a fan of Carthage. And every time I saw a word I didn’t know, I’d look it up in the dictionary. When I got to college, I began to become successful. I wasn’t a good test-taker, but a lot of good professors would let you do papers [instead].

Is it the testing now that’s burdensome for teachers, or the by-the-book lessons, or the paperwork?

We’ve taken the ability for classroom teachers to be creative out of teaching and learning. We have some principals who want to walk out of one classroom and hear the end of the lesson and walk into another and see the beginning of the lesson that follows. It’s almost like a production line.

Was there some teacher who made a difference for you?

I don’t want to sound like the mayor, but a teacher in high school really turned me around. He used to sit on the desk with his legs crossed and read Shakespeare. If the principal would see you doing that [now], they’d go crazy.


In a just world, what should a good mid-career teacher be earning?

$70,000; $80,000 [compared with] maybe $60,000; $65,000 now. And end of career: $100,000. And we should raise the standards. We should make it -- not that it isn’t difficult -- a little more arduous. When you raise standards and require more of teachers, and [pay] -- not merit pay, but pay them well -- then you’re going to attract the best and the brightest.

Should tenure be harder to get too?

Me, personally -- not speaking for the organization -- I would have no problem with changing the tenure rules and extending probation. We should not take tenure away once you get it but [have] some form of recertification.

You’re the face of UTLA, but there’s also a union house of representatives and a board of directors. Do you all get along?

With great difficulty! This job is about 100 times more difficult than I ever expected it to be, in the external and internal conflicts, the personalities, the different agendas. Sometimes your closest friends are your worst enemies because they’re pushing you to do something that you really don’t want to do. We go at it from time to time. A couple of things make it all right for me: my wife and my children, and teachers I run into. Ninety-eight percent of them say, “Thank you for what you did. I know it’s tough but keep fighting.”


What’s your relationship with Supt. Ramon C. Cortines compared with his predecessor, David L. Brewer?

Ray and I have a very [much] closer relationship. And that goes back to him being a classroom teacher. I never blindside Ray.

How do you feel about President Obama and teachers?

Very disappointed. He attacked us. He would have been better served if he’d called an education summit to come up with ideas that should have animated him on how we can change public education.

The mayor and Eli Broad are supporters of alternatives like charters. Don’t you agree they want the best schools too?

I think they do want to help. Antonio came from a poverty situation. Why would I doubt that he wanted to fix education for kids in poverty? Eli didn’t grow up in affluence. We get together and have breakfast occasionally. He and I share the same desire to destroy the bureaucracy and drive resources and accountability to the schools.


As a teacher and a dean,how did you get students to pay attention and stay with the program?

I was tough on the kids, but they knew it was all about them. Girls who were wearing low-cut [tops], I’d call the parents and say, “You have to leave work and [get] your daughter.” Kids who [wore] sagging [pants], I’d say, “You better buy your child a belt; they’ll be suspended.” I worked for three great principals as a dean and they backed up everything I did.

Some people believe the unions are putting teachers’ needs before students.

The idea that I put teachers’ interests ahead of kids’ interests is not accurate. I have to be mindful of the rights of my teachers. I think most parents who know me will say that I have the interests of students at heart. As Randi Weingarten [the head of the American Federation of Teachers] says, “Good for kids, fair for teachers.”

You beat the incumbent for this job five years ago. What was your mission then?

I had to create a strong relationship with the media, my way of getting the teachers’ messages out. And I was promised that I can go into one room and scream and yell at [LAUSD officials and staff] for being stupid, and walk in the other room and work with them to solve a problem. That’s the way I operate here. I get angry at people. They get angry at me. But I never let that stand in the way of having a working relationship. Never happens. So occasionally when I go off on people in the district, they know, well, that’s just Duffy. This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: