Union leader has love of language, teaching: Teeka James enjoys 17-year job at College of San Mateo, being an advocate

Teeka James

A love of language, her students and teaching have kept Teeka James, union leader for the local community colleges, at College of San Mateo for 17 years.

James is president of American Federation of Teachers Local 1493, the faculty union for all three colleges of the San Mateo County Community College District. She teaches English composition and literature classes at CSM and first got her start teaching 22 years ago at Skyline College in San Bruno.

“I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a teacher; I didn’t grow up thinking I’d be anything in particular,” said James, who is married with one child. “My parents both worked in schools. I worked a little bit in offices after college and never really liked it; I never was drawn to business. I thought teaching would be challenging and fun and luckily I liked it.”

She considered being a writer and worked for publishing companies doing editing during graduate school at San Francisco State University where she earned her master’s degree in English before getting a certificate in teaching composition. The Madison, Wisc., born James spent her undergraduate time at William Smith College in upstate New York.

Once interested in teaching, she initially thought she was going to teach high school, but then learned about community college teaching opportunities.

“I just love the professionalism that’s there (at CSM),” she said. “I love the ideas and the programs we have. I feel like everyone is there for the right reasons and has a lot of integrity. I just love my students, meeting them, getting to know them, watching them succeed, change their minds about things and get curious about stuff.”

James, 49, is one of the founding faculty of the “Writing in the End Zone” program, which is a learning community that explores the demands and rewards of being a student-athlete, while strengthening their reading and writing skills.

She is also excited to teach an American literature sequence this fall on women in literature for first time in a long while. She said she really enjoys teaching everything.

“I love the arts and theater and dance and am really enjoying a low-key existence right now,” she said. “I’m really interested in languages and culture. We speak English and Spanish at home. I’ve always been fascinated by people who could speak more than one language. I’m sad I only accomplished what fluency I have.”

Aside from her teaching, James is active in her capacity as union president for the district’s schools.

“About 12 years ago, an office mate and I were both pregnant and had babies and were frustrated with maternity leave,” she said. “It turns out we were frustrated in the wrong direction. Our maternity leave was really quite good. Instead of complaining, we said ‘let’s get involved.’ We learned we had expectations that weren’t realistic.”

Although she felt like she was young and somewhat naive, it was her introduction to the union and the labor movement in general. Her two-year term as president will be done at the end of this year.

“People working in the union were wonderful mentors,” she said. “I learned a lot about what it means to advocate and protect rights. … It’s very satisfying. The issues change and grow, but in end the fundamental point of a union is to protect the employees’ due process rights and provide fair compensation and good work conditions. Make sure when there are problems, there’s a fair process that follows.”

What are some of the major challenges the union is dealing with now?

“One big thing — I’m glad this is almost complete — is a huge revision of the faculty evaluation section of the contract,” she said. “It is vague now — how do you really evaluate school nurses practicing medicine?”

She noted the student evaluation piece is really dated and computers didn’t exist when it was created. A task force of faculty and administrators from all three community colleges have been working on updating the evaluations for a year and half and it’s just about done.

“We’re working really hard to make sure there’s a lot of buy in and communication about the changes,” she said.

Faculty would ratify the changes, then it would go to the district board for final approval. The hope is that it will be instated in the fall.

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