by Sabrina Holcomb
In his six years teaching in New Jersey’s Bergenfield Public School district, Gabriel Tanglao has come to realize how much his students’ well-being depends on his activism outside of the classroom. “I’ve learned that I can’t stand up for my students without advocating for the issues that affect them and their families,” says Tanglao, who teaches AP economics and modern world history to high school students in one of the most diverse school districts in the state.
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One issue that affects every one of his students is school funding. Tanglao, who is also treasurer and legislative action team chair of the Bergenfield Education Association, helped fight for recent legislative victories on state aid. He spoke to us about it recently in his role as a union activist and leader:
Why did you call it a moral victory when Governor Christie signed a bill prohibiting the withholding of school funding from school districts based on the number of students who took the state exam?
Loss of funds would have hurt the very students who are traditionally underserved—students of color and students in poor school districts. My affiliate helped organize statewide “Take the Test” awareness events where we invited parents to come and take the exam, followed by a countywide screening of the movie “Beyond Measure,” about educators pioneering a fresh vision for America’s schools. We were ultimately successful because of a massive organizing effort and collaborative partnership that rallied parents and educators across the state. This work really feels like a movement.
Are the nation’s educators starting a new movement?
The corporatization of education is turning us into robots. But we’re starting to fight back. I’ve never met so many passionate and committed educators as I have this past year. They understand they have to be active outside as well as inside of the classroom. My local conducted a member-to-member, door-knocking campaign and listening tour this year as a successful get-out-the vote effort for a state senatorial and school board election. It’s an untapped power we’re beginning to tap into.
What inspires you most about teaching right now?
One of my favorite things about teaching at Bergenfield High is that it’s one of the most diverse districts in the state. I like being in a school where I can have a classroom of 30 kids and every single one has a different ethnic and social background. America used to be called a melting pot; now it’s a mixed salad. It’s the norm for these students so they don’t think twice about it. It’s what we’re working towards as a country. Our school district has the second largest population of Filipinos in New Jersey, and as a first-generation Filipino-American, it’s great having that connection to my students. The sweet spot for me is providing working-class and first-generation immigrants with the ladder of opportunity we always talk about.
So opportunity and social justice are still important ideals for millennial educators?
For my generation, social justice is part of our value system. Columbine and 9/11 took place during our formative years. We helped elect Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president. But we also had to juxtapose the promise of that election with the rise of violence in the streets, the growth of the school-to-prison pipeline, and the over-incarceration of black and brown children. The verdict is still out on what millennials will do when we become the generation in power. We’ll have to step up and solve some of these major problems. We don’t have the luxury of doing nothing.
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