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Editor’s Note: There’s a feeling in Hawaii that people here don’t like to rock the boat, to speak up or publicly raise concerns about important issues and possible wrongdoing. How many times have we heard that the nail that sticks up gets pounded down? But public debate and discussion are vital if we are going to make Hawaii a better place for residents and businesses. This series spotlights people (and organizations) in Hawaii who aren’t afraid to make waves.
Campbell High School teacher Corey Rosenlee encourages his students to break the rules.
A social studies teacher, Rosenlee has his 11th and 12th graders playing “crazy robot.” Basically, robots only do what you tell them to do, he explains, so how would you instruct a robot to eat ice cream? The students split up into groups and then write commands for the robot: Grab a spoon. Scoop up the ice cream. Put it in your mouth. Swallow.
But Rosenlee, in a display that garners chuckles from the roughly 35 students in the Sociology class, shows that such commands are insufficient. The students’ rules, he demonstrates, don’t restrict the robot from sitting on the seat backwards, from eating with its mouth open, from holding the spoon in a fist.
“We need to become aware of those rules so we decide independently if those rules are incorrect,” he explained in an interview with Civil Beat. “And if we decide those rules are incorrect we can do something about it.”
To the students, the teacher notes, “You are filled with rules — crazy rules.”
Rosenlee wants his lessons to strike a chord in his students. He wants them to go against the grain, think outside the box, question the status quo. He hopes the students adapt what they learn from the activity — which involves actual cookies and cream ice cream — into the real world.
Rosenlee teaches about social norms in a sociology class.
Sociology is without question Rosenlee’s favorite class to teach, he said after the class. And, the way he sees it, “Part of sociology is activism.”
He, too, takes the lessons he teaches to heart. He believes public education in Hawaii is stifled by a plethora of incorrect rules, and he is trying to break them for the greater good.
Rosenlee, with the help of several other Campbell High teachers, was the mastermind behind a grassroots — or, as a recent Time magazine and Hechinger Report piece described it, “rogue” — teachers movement that erupted at their Ewa Beach school in 2011.
The so-called Hawaii Teachers Work to the Rules movement started out as a play off of work-to-rule, a type of union protest in which employees do no more than the minimum work required in their contract in an effort to show that they’re being underpaid. Rosenlee saw work-to-rule as a productive alternative to a strike; teachers would still get paid, but by working strictly according to the minimum rules of their contract they’d show the state what it’d be missing out on if they only showed up for work between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Rosenlee had long been frustrated with the state over what he felt was an egregious lack of regard for teachers and students. He had always wanted to organize teachers but never felt it was the right time. At least not until Gov. Neil Abercrombie rejected the Hawaii State Teachers Association contract. That is when drawn-out tensions over pay came to a head.
The social studies teacher rummaged up a few teachers through casual exchanges on Facebook, but that was all he could mobilize. That didn’t stop him. He wrote up his work-to-rule manifesto and sent it out to all of Campbell’s teachers. He invited them to a lunch meeting in late October, uncertain about how many would show up.
He was in for a surprise. Sixty of the school’s roughly 160 teachers came to that first meeting where they overwhelmingly agreed to take part in work-to-rule protests. In the following weeks, the campaign spread to more than 100 schools across the state.
Campbell teachers began to meet weekly to organize protests and push their message out to the media.
Participating teachers “worked to the rules” every Thursday during the 2011-12 school year, but eventually the movement shifted gears. The “work-to-rule” message, he said, was too negative.
The next phase was to rally teachers into action.
Rosenlee described the organization as a vessel through which people can now network and collaborate, and foster a sense of activism that he said was largely absent among educators.
“It made our teachers more willing to be activists,” he said. “If we want big education change in our society, teachers are going to have to be activists.”
Rosenlee and his sidekicks engaged in other advocacy efforts, too. They drafted a bill — the Penny for Education Act — that proposed raising the general excise tax by 1 percent to generate revenue for public education. They organized email campaigns and teach-ins at the governor’s residence. They called on teachers to rally at the Capitol. (Despite the mobilization, the measure was unsuccessful.)
They also had to contend with another force: the teachers’ union, which hadn’t given the work-to-rule protest its seal of approval. The HSTA even testified against the Penny for Education Act — a decision that union President Wil Okabe told Civil Beat was made because the bill wasn’t vetted through the HSTA’s government relations committee.
“(Rosenlee) was informed about the process,” Okabe said. “He decided that he wanted to do it on his own, outside the governance structure.”
Still, Okabe emphasized that although bureaucratic protocol barred the union from supporting Rosenlee’s bill, the HSTA believes all teachers should be able to voice their opinions. The union did, after all, provide Hawaii Teachers Work to the Rules with signs and buses to transport participants to and from the Capitol.
Meantime, Rosenlee says it’s crucial that the work-to-rule movement and the union collaborate as they continue to advocate in favor of education reform. That’s largely why he agreed to serve in the union, as a faculty representative for Leeward area schools.
The activist-teacher chose his words carefully when talking about the HSTA, an indication of his belief that cooperation between the union and movement is critical to achieving teachers’ goals.
“We need to make HSTA an organization of change,” he said.
Rosenlee, who grew up in Hawaii Kai and graduated from Kaiser High School, always wanted to be a teacher.
He developed his activist streak early, too, he said. The social studies teacher laughs as he recalls his first foray into activism at a protest against Kaiser’s dress code.
Two decades later, his voice grows louder as he talks about teacher pay and the way that it handicaps student learning and social equality.
Rosenlee signwaves with other teachers
Insufficient salaries, he said, make it hard for schools to retain teachers — 56 percent of new teachers leave their job every five years — and that forces the department to place inexperienced, often poor-quality, teachers in the most disadvantaged schools. In some extreme cases, they have to teach subjects in which they have little or no expertise.
And then there are the abysmal classroom conditions — an issue that Rosenlee has made his top priority this semester. Roughly nine out of every 10 public schools in the state, including Campbell, lack air conditioning. Classrooms can heat up to 95 degrees, a problem that he says takes a great toll on student concentration and learning.
“We’re not asking for champagne and caviar,” he said. “There’s never enough money for the basics.”
Hawaii Teachers Work to the Rules are hosting a rally at the Capitol in late September to lobby for air conditioning.
When Civil Beat first approached Rosenlee for this article, he hesitated. Hawaii Teachers Work to the Rules is very much a team effort, he insisted. He didn’t think it was fair to put himself in the spotlight.
But other teachers who’ve been involved in the movement since its inception doubted that the movement would have had the impact that it has had if it weren’t for Rosenlee.
“We needed someone to take the initiative,” said Tammy Jones, a literacy specialist at Campbell. She said that Rosenlee delegated tasks, spoke out at faculty meetings and sent out press releases.
When he first decided to launch the campaign, Rosenlee tapped Jones to help him get the word out, so she set up a Facebook page. Until then, teachers lacked an unfiltered forum where they could network and discuss issues. The movement spread like wildfire.
“We started realizing that teachers who really never spoke out were coming out and screaming and raising their signs and wearing their shirts,” Jones said.
Another key player was Oscar Ramiscal, a tech specialist at Campbell who designs graphics for the group’s Facebook page and other handouts.
He said that Hawaii Teachers Work to the Rules wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far if it weren’t for Rosenlee’s willingness to talk to the press and lawmakers and his capacity to galvanize teachers. Ramiscal acknowledged that Rosenlee’s tenacity hasn’t always sat well among some teachers. He has even, on occasion, sided with faculty who called on the social studies teacher to tone down his criticisms.
“But at least he’s persistent in the way that he thinks it can be done,” Ramiscal said. “He has a driving vision.”