United for the Kids

If elected to Pima County Superintendent of Schools, Michael Gordy, a former Tucson teachers’ union leader wants to bridge gap between school administrations and classrooms

"Never write with pencil, m'ija. Write with ink or mud, or berries grown in gardens never owned, or, sometimes, if necessary, blood."

Retired teacher Michael Gordy has this notebook—a gift from the owners of Pop-Cycle, whom Gordy has known since they were children. It's made out of a recycled license plate, and it's filled with inspirational words by poets, and even one by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina appointed to the High Court.

The one he read while hanging out at the Cushing Street Bridge is by Chicana writer Carmen Tafolla.

Gordy is one of those men who wants to walk beside women and not in front of them. He wears a bright pink Planned Parenthood T-shirt, tugged into his dark-blue slacks and an unbuttoned checkered, collar shirt that serves as a light jacket on this chilly but sunny morning. He says one of the best compliments he's ever gotten was on his wedding day earlier this year by good friend and "best woman" Paula Aboud, a former Democratic state legislator, who told him, "Mike, you are one of the best women that I have known."

He changes topics to talk about Republican U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, and how much he wants former state lawmaker Victoria Steele to unseat her. "We need someone who believes in funding Planned Parenthood," says Gordy, a member of Tucson's Legislative District 9 Democratic Committee, hoping to become Pima County's new superintendent of schools now that Linda Arzoumanian is retiring after 16 years in office.

The Teachers Union

On his second or third day as an educator in Tucson Unified School District's Pistor Middle School, the first school he ever taught at close to 30 years ago, Gordy joined the Tucson Education Association, a teachers' union. That progressed into also joining the Arizona Education Association and later the National Education Association.

When it came to teachers' rights, Gordy was on top of it, fearlessly filling grievances whenever he saw principal-teacher abuse of power, or discrepancies in the district.

He ended up becoming vice-president of the TEA, and then elected president from 1999 to 2001. During that time, he lobbied TUSD for teacher salary equity and decent pay increases. It's crazy to think that issue hasn't yet been resolved.

But as much as he advocates for his fellow teachers, he says the most important people in that classroom are the students.

Most of his teaching career has involved educating kids on U.S. History, culture and some mathematics. Retired from Vail Middle School in 2008, Gordy made his way back into the classroom three years ago through a program with Literacy Connects called Reading Seed. The mission is to help Pima County children learn how to read.

"We wouldn't be here without you guys," he says he tells the kids before reading to them. His choices are books like "Peace Begins with You" and "Make Someone Smile and 40 More Ways to be a Peaceful Person," both children's books with fun illustrations. "You have to do your very best every day, except when you don't and that's okay because every once in a while everybody has a bad day. Just try again."

He remembers and misses the old days as an educator in front of a group of developing minds. He'd teach his kids about self-love, support and empathy. "I used to tell my students, If you feel sorry for someone, what you are saying is, 'I am better than you' or 'you have a problem, I don't,' but if you empathize with that person, maybe the two of you can end up [solving] whatever the issue was. At least that way you make connections and that is what this world is about."

He whishes more of the decision-making could come from listening to students more. The way things work right now, he says, is everything education system-related happens way too far away from the classroom and the students. Children and youth have almost no say, or none at all, in how they learn.

"It is one of the reasons why I am running, because I think we can be doing education a whole lot more intentionally, a whole lot more inclusively, a whole lot more centered on what is really important ... the kids," he says. "If I end up being fortunate enough to get this job, I want people to understand that the classroom has to be the focus."

If I Get Elected

It's been a good year for Gordy, a UA alumni with a bachelor's in elementary education. He got married in January, and his daughter (he also has a son) is expecting. It'll be Gordy's first grandchild and he's damn excited. It's a coincidence that two major events in his life fall on the same year he's pushing a campaign for county superintendent of schools.

The idea to run was introduced to Gordy four years ago by a leader within the Pima County Democratic Party. It was May, and Gordy didn't think he'd be able to run a credible campaign in just a handful of months. "The more and more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'I can do a good job. I have a lot of experience,'" he says.

If he survives the primary election against TUSD educator Dustin Williams in August, and then beats Republican Margaret Burkholder—whom Gordy has known for a while, including many group trips together to the state Legislature to advocate for schools—in the general elections Gordy wants to implement a system where schools' administrators are prepared to teach a class or two every once in a while. Sometimes there is a division between the classroom and the administration, and he wants to bridge that, he says. In a way, make everyone whole, rather than split them into groups.

"This would have a transformative structure," he says. Gordy and Williams need a minimum of 848 signatures to make the ballot. Burkholder needs at least 771. The number of signatures is based on the number of people who registered to vote in each political party.

To wrap up this series, next week we will chat with Linda Arzoumanian about her experience and legacy as Pima County Superintendent of Schools for the past 16 years.