Matt Meyer is the elected head of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) as of fall 2019. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Meyer worked his way to the position through a long career of fighting for justice in various educational positions.
Working as a teacher in Washington D.C. and Ohio before moving to the West Coast, where he spent the majority of his career working as an economics teacher at Berkeley High School (BHS), Meyer has always kept his goal of working towards justice in mind. “It has always been a big theme in my life,” he said. He also said that his pursuit of justice was, in fact, a primary motivation behind his career choice of becoming an educator. Though he considered a career in law, he ultimately realized he’d rather do something with a more direct impact on the world around him. Meyer said he believes that “change happens [through] education,” and the way to improving our world is actually in “tackling and teaching big issues.”
For the time being, however, Meyer has decided to involve himself in an aspect of public education he is actually in “tackling and teaching big issues.”
For the time being, however, Meyer has decided to involve himself in an aspect of public education he is less familiar with — union work. The BFT is comprised of 800 teachers, counselors, librarians, substitutes, school psychologists, and speech pathologists who serve BUSD students.
Meyer was drawn to the BFT because “they’re really at the core of where education happens … teachers who work with students directly need to have a voice.” Meyer was eager to take advantage of the opportunity to work with educators and other community members to institute positive change. He wanted to try something new and do what he jokingly calls continuing to build his human capital, a humorous reference to his many years teaching economics — something which he indubitably plans to return to whenever he decides to take a step back from his prominent position in local union work. “[I’ll] definitely go back to teaching. I don’t know when … But whenever I decide to not do this [serve as President of the BFT], I will be back in the classroom,” he says. Meyer also noted that not being able to work with students is “the biggest drawback of [his current] job.”
Meyer feels most comfortable in the classroom, as it is truly where he loves to be and teaching is what he loves to do. “It is what I see as my life’s work,” he says. And the students here, he adds, “are really special … That there’s a diverse student body with a real yearning for knowledge.” This excites Meyer and has inspired him to continue teaching at BHS and has continuously“kept [him] going in this community.”However, until he does decide to leave his position and return to teaching, Meyer will continue his work in the union. Working as its vice-president before becoming the union head, Meyer first learned the role before assuming it. With his self-described excellent problem-solving skills and ability to build relationships, his position in the union has been what he calls “a natural fit.”
Though the demands of Meyer’s role are constant, he sees it all as an opportunity “to really think about the decisions that [he makes and] the conversations that [he is] having.” Though many educators are being forced to move farther and farther from Bay Area because of its increasingly taxing cost, Meyer finds the community in Berkeley to be incredibly supportive of educators.
He also notes that the school board, all of which’s current sitting members the union endorsed, have been “good listeners.” This, he says, is integral in maintaining communication and a positive relationship between both groups. Together they must work to make decisions that positively impact all of Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), how educators here teach, and how our students learn.
Meyer is currently focused on promoting conscientiousness of the three ballot measures to be voted on this coming March. “These three measures are important to pass … Without [them], I think we’re going to see a mass exodus of teachers from this community.” If that were to happen, “we’d end up with more vacancies at the beginning of the year and, in general, less qualified people in the classroom. It won’t be an instant thing, but it will continue to be a problem, and it will get harder to staff our schools.” Meyer says this would be at a significant loss to students “because the teachers that are leaving are ones that are well trained and invested [in their work].” Anything less is “just not the same kinds of education,” so Meyer prompts everyone to think more of teacher working conditions, as they are also student learning conditions.