News Archive

Chat with NYSUT's Jolene DiBrango

Published October 01, 2018

“A huge part of my whole journey was being a Nazareth student.” —Jolene DiBrango ‘94G, NYSUT Executive Vice President

Jolene T. DiBrango, executive vice president of New York State United Teachers, recently returned to her alma mater, Nazareth College, and sat down to chat with School of Education Dean Kate DaBoll-Lavoie.

DiBrango earned her master’s in literacy from Nazareth in 1994. She began teaching in the Canandaigua City School District in 1994 but spent the majority of her career in the Pittsford Central School District teaching sixth grade. She is also a graduate of Mohawk Valley Community College and SUNY Oswego. DiBrango holds teaching certificates in elementary education, reading, and business education.

While teaching in Pittsford, she went on to be a union leader. She was elected to statewide office after serving three terms as president of the Pittsford District Teachers Association. She also served as one of three active teacher-members on the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System Board from 2014 to 2017. She was elected executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers in April 2017.

Kate: How did Nazareth College impact you?

Jolene: I studied reading and literacy at Nazareth. I hit the jackpot with Dr. Naomi Erdmann. The lessons she taught our class remained with me throughout my entire teaching career. The same day I completed my master’s program and took my oral exam, I interviewed in Canandaigua. I was hired immediately as a sixth grade teacher. I was on cloud nine.

Kate: How did Nazareth shape who you are as a professional today?

Jolene: Nazareth taught us that, as teachers, we had to make sure we knew where our children were in their learning before we began to teach them. In literacy instruction, this is extremely important. Nazareth College gave me the tools to be able to assess children appropriately, so I knew where they were and where they needed to go.

In my opinion, the reading clinic was even better than my student teaching experience.  We were able to work one-on-one with children and with different age groups. We were able to really diagnose students and see where they came in and where they were when they left you. We built incredible relationships with students. They trusted us. A lot of these kids came in and had been through other types of experiences. There was a lot of reticence on their part to let us see what they didn’t know. Being able to unlock their potential was a great experience.

Kate: You currently are the NYSUT executive vice president. What road did you travel to move into that position?

Jolene: I was always an active union member. I came from a union family. I’ve always believed in the power of collective voice. The day after I earned tenure in Pittsford, a senior teacher asked if I’d like to be a union representative. After serving as a building rep, I eventually ran for—and was elected—president of my local union. Over time, I became more involved on the regional level and, eventually, became a trustee with the New York State Teacher Retirement System. Through that work, I worked closely with Andy Pallotta.  When he decided to run for NYSUT president, he asked if I’d be his executive vice president. It isn’t one of those things where you wake up as a little girl and say, ‘I’m going to be a union officer.’ I never really felt that way, but I did always feel a pull toward unionism and the labor movement.

Kate: It’s always interesting to hear the paths people take on the road to where they are now…

Jolene: Union work has been very gratifying. Unions give educators the ability to speak out on social justice issues. Teachers new to the classroom don’t always realize they have the ability to speak out on behalf of their students. The union provides us with that voice.

Kate: What does it mean to be NYSUT’s executive VP?

Jolene:  My primary role is one of advocacy. I oversee the advocacy between our members and the State Education Department and Board of Regents. As NYSUT’s executive vice president, I also have the immense responsibility of representing educators and their concerns before state education policymakers. In that role, I speak with the state education commissioner and the chancellor regularly. NYSUT has more than 600,000 members statewide. We represent nurses, higher education professionals, and teachers and other professionals—like bus drivers and cafeteria aides—in our pre-kindergarten through high schools. I’m very entrenched in educational issues, and it’s a really nice fit for me.

Kate: Thinking about educational issues, what is on your mind and what should be on our minds as we educate future teachers?

Jolene: The debate over assessments—and how we evaluate students and our teachers—is a really important conversation. However, I don’t think that they’re separate conversations. In my 25 years as an educator, I’ve learned the best way to learn what a child is capable of is to use multiple measures. Portfolios and school projects are two examples that go along with the traditional pencil and paper test. Every child is different. They all have different gifts and strengths. We’re shortchanging a lot of children by using a one-point-in-time standardized test. We aren’t getting a complete picture of what these children know and can accomplish.

Kate: There has been a great deal of discussion about “teacher accountability.”  Can you share your thoughts about that?

Jolene: I don’t think you can evaluate teachers on a one-moment-in-time test. As educators, we’ve all encountered students who come into your classroom in September and, perhaps, are struggling a bit. Then, you unlock something in them. You know, as their teacher, how far they have come in your classroom. It may not be measured on one day on one test in May. It is unfair to link that student’s score on one test to a teacher’s evaluation. Yes, teachers should be held accountable. We’ve always believed that. I think we need to find more authentic ways to evaluate teachers than a standardized test.

Kate: Let’s touch on teacher recruitment and retention, as we think about enrollment in teacher education programs here and across the nation.  How do we attract people into the profession and get them to stay in the profession?

Jolene: As educators, we need to change the narrative around teaching. Respect is essential. And, as a nation, we need to understand that all students benefit from having a diverse corps of educators. I think it’s very important that children see themselves in their teachers. One of the things we noticed is that we do see more candidates of color coming into the profession, but we aren’t retaining them. It would be great to develop meaningful partnerships between our colleges and school districts. Many schools have strong mentor programs, but one year of mentoring may not be enough. Just like children don’t learn at the same rate, neither do aspiring educators. I think a multi-year approach for teachers who may need additional support is one approach.

Kate: What’s next on the horizon for the next generation of teachers?

Jolene: There is a lot of talk about residency programs. I think many teachers in the field find it very interesting—to have candidates stay with them longer and work with them more closely.  At NYSUT, we want to make sure there is a funding stream to support programs like this, and that it doesn’t take dollars away from public education and school budgets. We have some very successful residencies in the state, but some are funded by grants. Whether we are talking about residencies, professional development, or programs for children, they need to be supported with real dollars.

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Nazareth College’s academic strengths cross an unusually broad spectrum of 60 majors, including education, health and human services, management, the fine arts, music, theater, math and science, foreign languages, and the liberal arts. The coeducational, religiously independent, classic campus in a charming suburb of Rochester, N.Y., challenges and supports 2,300 undergrads and 700 graduate students. Nazareth is recognized nationally for its Fulbright global student scholars and commitment to civic engagement. Rigorous programs, an uncommon arts and sciences core, experiential learning, career skills, and a global focus prepare graduates for not just one job, but for their life’s work.

Jolene DiBrango, (left) Nazareth alumna & NYSUT executive vice president, talks with School of Ed Dean Kate DaBoll-Lavoie.