Guest Post: Why I Stand Up: From a "Right to Work" State


This post is just one of many being published today as part of the #EDUSolidarity project, of which I am an organizer. After you have read this, please take some time to read the wide variety of posts that will be added during the day at

Guest blogger Penelope Millar is a high school history teacher in Virginia who is trying to fight burn out and find hope for education.

Why do I support unions?

First and foremost, because I am a history teacher.

It’s pretty hard to study the history of the US (really, the world) and not discover the ways that the union movement of the early 20th century is responsible for so much good. If you love Fridays because it’s the beginning of your weekend, if you get paid overtime past 40 hours a week, if you get your half hour lunch and 15 minute breaks, and if you have ever needed workers comp when injured on the job, then thank a union.  Without the progressive movement and the actions of unions in the first half of this century, we wouldn’t have any of those things. We wouldn’t have a lot of health and safety regulations. We would have some pretty terrible working conditions.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to cause real change. It shouldn’t. Sometimes people speaking up for what they believe is right, protesting peacefully and negotiating with their bosses works instead. I’m pro-union because I’d much rather tragedy wasn’t the only way to get people motivated to fix things.

There are those that argue that unions may have done good then but aren’t needed now. To them I say: come to Virginia. This is a “right to work” state. If you’re not familiar with this, it means that collective bargaining and closed union shops are not allowed by law. I have a union, but they cannot do the things I think of as the traditional purposes of unions, like negotiate my contract. I can’t individually negotiate my contract either, by the way, it’s a take-it-or-leave-it situation. I’ve seen teachers from union states talk about the provisions in their contracts that protect students. We don’t have any of that.

I grew up and started teaching in Pennsylvania, which has some pretty strong unions, and I have not seen much evidence that without unions Virginia is more of a hotbed of reform and great education. If anything, I find a lot more to be frustrated with in the education system here. It’s not just because of the lack of union representation for teachers, but that’s part of it. You don’t have to take my word for it either, there’s some evidence out there that right-to-work states do worse on several indicators of educational performance even after you control for a lot of other factors.

I’ll admit that I don’t think that test scores cited above are the be-all and end-all of measures of the value of a school system. I’m someone who really questions the value of standardized testing. I may be a history teacher but I don’t think the purpose of my subject is to get you to memorize dates and names. The purpose is to get you to THINK which most tests do not currently measure. However, I don’t know anyone who’s collecting data on teaching of critical thinking skills in union vs non-union states. If anyone’s got it, feel free to share.

You hear a lot about how unions protect bad teachers and the evils of tenure. I haven’t seen any evidence in my time teaching in Virginia that our lack of tenure means that bad teachers are always fired and only amazing superhero teachers are kept around. My school has the usual mix of teachers. I’ve seen people fired or kept around for good and bad reasons. I doubt you could go into most workplaces in the US and find a much different situation.

Generally, I think that the emphasis on “good” and “bad” teachers is a red herring. This is a job with an incredibly high attrition rate in the first 3 years and a pretty high burn-out rate after 10-15 years. It takes a lot of time, energy and devotion to be a good teacher (much less the sort of superhero teacher that gets movies made about them) in our current system. The fact of the matter is that this is not sustainable for most teachers in most places.  Most people get into this profession with good intentions of being one of those inspiring teachers. Good intentions aren’t enough. When faced with the reality of public education today, good intentions and hard work is often not enough.

We have plenty of people willing to teach, that’s not what we need to worry about. I’d like to say right now as one of those “top students” that the news is always saying need to be attracted to teaching I don’t actually think that my high test scores, grades or IQ make me a better teacher than some of my colleagues. Teaching is an incredibly complex process that requires multiple intelligences and skills. I can outguess a standardized test like nobody’s business but how does that help me deal with a room full of 30 hormonal teenagers who’d rather be at lunch? I might know my content better but if I can’t get kids to listen to me that doesn’t help much.

I understand why so many teachers become unwilling to change, to try new things, to listen to new ideas. I understand why people end up teaching the same lessons they did years ago. When you have been asked to try all sorts of new fads and ideas without real explanation of why they’re worth doing, when changes are made to the fundamental nature of your job without asking your opinion, when you’re asked to put a lot of work into a program only to have it dropped two years later, a fundamental trust has been broken. People simply cannot do their best work in those kind of situations. “Beatings will continue until morale improves” doesn’t work. Sorry.

Rather than blaming those who are tired, disillusioned or frustrated with their jobs, we should be considering how to support ALL teachers to improve. We should be creating a system where professional development is actually useful to teachers, where there are systems in place to help prevent and deal with burn-out, where teachers have the support they need to do well. So many supposedly “bad” teachers are people who given a chance could do so much better.  I work with people who know that they aren’t achieving what they want with their students, who are trying what they know how to do and finding that it doesn’t work. They don’t think they are the world’s best teacher when they’re not. They also don’t get the kind of support I think they need. (I include myself in this number. I could be a much better teacher. I do my best to the best of my knowledge but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.)

All of this brings me back full circle to why I support unions: I believe that real educational change CANNOT happen in this country if you do not give a voice to those of us “in the trenches” doing the day to day dirty work. Unions are that voice for many teachers.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Why I Stand Up: From a "Right to Work" State

  1. This is a wonderful article. I really appreciate the perspective from a non-union state. It sounds like it is much more difficult to teach in Virginia. Kudos to you for sticking with it and teaching your students what it sounds like are some powerful lessons.
    I agree with your opinion on attracting “top students” to the teaching profession. I have met some brilliant people from Ivy League schools who have no idea how to teach children or relate to them. I also think that my own personal struggles with having a learning disability (and still being a B/A student for most of my career!) helps me work with all types of learning styles and really help kids who are struggling.
    Thanks also for mentioning my website!


  2. “I have met some brilliant people from Ivy League schools who have no idea how to teach children or relate to them. I also think that my own personal struggles with having a learning disability.”

    Teaching and relating to are all of a thing, after all. The relationships we build matter so much in education. This is definitely not my strong point, and it’s something I have had to work long and hard on as a teacher.


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