Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

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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 EDUSolidarity.us

Right around the time I was elected as my school’s UFT Chapter Leader, my school hired a new principal.  He had taught history for twelve years, and is married to an English teacher. He had spent the preceding year at my school as a principal intern, during which I came to know and respect him as a person and educator.  When we sat down for our first formal meeting as principal and chapter leader-elects, the first thing he said was, “Steve, you’re a great teacher.  So why would you want to be Chapter Leader?”

I have heard this question too many times.  It assumes the stereotype of the teachers union as home to the despondent, bitter, lazy, kid-haters who teach to get summers off.  And I must admit, I was guilty of holding this prejudice to some degree when I became Chapter Leader.  While I, of course, wanted to take on the role to ensure the fair treatment of teachers at my school, a large part of my motivation was to slowly work to gain a voice within the UFT, so that a good teacher like me could displace an old and bitter one, in the hope that others would follow.  However, what I have discovered in my interactions with people within the UFT and at the various meetings I attend is exactly what is true of teachers I have met in my career: the overwhelming majority of people who step foot into a classroom want nothing more than to do right by their kids.

Now, there is certainly disagreement on how to do this.  I know people who are great, award-winning teachers who have radically different pedagogical styles than I do.  They might even do some things that I would counsel the teachers I mentor against doing.  But different teaching styles are necessary, as they reach different students.  I would never want every teacher in the world to be exactly like me.

The same is true when it comes to educational policy.  I only agree with the educational policies of the UFT slightly more often than I agree with the policies of the NYC DOE.  I wouldn’t trust either to run schools without the checks and balances the other provides.  There are times when change is a good thing, and sometimes that needs to be enforced from on high.  There are also times when these “new ideas” are ridiculous and need to be stopped.  There is a need for meaningful accountability for teachers.  There are also times when the system acts out of expediency rather than in the best interest of students, and the union needs to be there to speak up for our students.

The area that the union is almost always right about though, is insisting that teachers be treated as professionals. This means ensuring that we are compensated in such a way that allows one to teach, support a family, and retire.  This means having meaningful, objective criteria for evaluation and layoffs that is not based on poorly constructed tests.  And due to the nature of the job, this means we need tenure protection from arbitrary dismissal.

I work with a great teacher who nearly lost his job last year because students stole a copy of a grade-wide exam off his desk.  I know someone in Virginia, where I started my career, who was falsely accused of sexual harassment by a student after she did poorly on an exam. I have seen teachers assigned classes for which they are neither certified nor trained to teach.  I had parents calling for my dismissal my first year because I asked their children to write persuasive essays representing the opposite point of view on an issue they cared about.  Great teachers are so hard to produce and find that we need a system that ensures we never arbitrarily lose them.

More than anything, however, I need the protection of my union and my tenured due process rights to consistently improve and innovate as a teacher.  I am a very good teacher right now by any measurable objective standard, including that of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards who certified me two years ago, as well as by the subjective account of anyone who has ever observed me.  On my best days, I am great and every year, there are more and more of these days.

But here’s why I need tenure to get better: I need to be able to try new things to better improve my students’ learning.  If I did the same thing this year that I did last year, my students’ growth would stagnate.  This means taking risks.

New things do not always go well; most of the new things I try work, but some don’t.  By being able to try new things, over time, I am constantly improving in my ability to serve my students, bringing me ever closer to the sustained greatness to which I aim.

If I had to worry about arbitrary dismissal as an “at-will” employee, I would not have tried many of the great things I do.  I would continue doing what I have always done because it is safe.  I have written before that good teaching takes courage.  This is certainly the case, but seeking to improve as a teacher should never mean risking one’s job, which is exactly what I would be doing if I were still an at-will employee as I was in the right-to-work state of Virginia.

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8 thoughts on “Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

  1. As someone who knows the benefits unions played in the past, and does not hold ill will against unions or their members (except where they act violently against my family members for not joining their union – which has happened in the past (non-education unions)) – I wanted to read this article to understand where you were coming from.

    The first few paragraphs had me agreeing with you – teachers need protections to be able to stretch – no doubt. One of the worst things to happen to me as a young teacher was when the assistant principal came into my classroom, that was actively involved in a great discussion with student engagement and passion (things we love as teachers) but had gotten a tad bit loud (seriously not more than the murmer that tends to happen just before the bell), and berated me for not being able to control my class. That was the first and only interaction I ever had with that assistant principal. My class was doing what I wanted – ENGAGING – and I was brought down for it.

    However, I fail to follow your leap from trying new things to tenure being a good thing. When, in my experience, tenure has served as the death nail of once decent teachers. It’s not that they want to become bad, its that life begins building up on them. Their own kids grow and they have problems and issues to deal with – and what was once their passion, teaching, becomes less important because they have greater fires to squelch. Many, I believe fall back on tenure and begin to mail it in.

    I don’t think that teachers should be let go because they try something new and it fails. I also don’t think that teachers should try something new for so long a period that it lets an entire class slip through without learning what they needed to learn. I also don’t believe that there are many principles out there who will fire someone who has a track record of success for a blip of failure. In the non-public sector world (which I have also spent some time) people have to continue showing their value to a company. I know of very few companies who can afford to keep someone on board if they are not benefiting the company. It’s just an economic law – on that I fear unions have a tendency to help get out of whack.

    That being said. You seem to me the type of person who I would like to see as the head of a division. You seem thoughtful, engaged and sincere. It is in disagreement often that we come up with our best solutions. So I look forward to a spirited and courteous debate with the true intentions of the best for teachers, students and the public (whose interest lies in being at both one who foots the bill and one who intends to benefit from the successes of the public education institutions they fund.)

    Thanks for caring.

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  2. Gretchen, thanks for the thoughtful and measured reply. It’s always nice to get a response like that.

    I think we probably agree on most of the important issues, the difference between us seems to be based on what we perceive as being more of an issue: teachers who mail it in (I felt like I had a lot of these in high school; I haven’t really seen this at all as a professional in the 3 different schools I’ve worked in in RI, VA, and NY) or teachers who are arbitrarily dismissed (here is just one example of that happening: Peter Lamphere’s Experience).
    If we had better managers/heads of divisions, I would be willing to grant more of your argument, but unfortunately we don’t. We also have a system, in NYC at least, that gives very little oversight and regular accountability to principals. We also give very little oversight and regular accountability to teachers. Both these things need to change in a meaningful way. All tenure does is guarantee a teacher who has earned tenure to right to due process, which I think is actually minimal protection in a system with meaningful oversight and accountability. It only becomes something teachers can fall back on when principals aren’t holding her or his teachers accountable.

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  3. I guess I’ve never seen it from the perspective of fear of being fired. That asst. principal I spoke of earlier was actually relocated. But I can see the point that if I had remained under her – maybe there would have been trouble.

    We truly can agree that lack of good measurable objectives is one of the things that is sorely missing. How do you measure the effectiveness of a teacher? Test scores may be used as a component (but only as a part of a whole). Some other ideas – student feedback, peer feedback, parent feedback and maybe most important of all – alumni feedback. Some of I best teachers were on my worst nightmares in high school, but by the time I was in college they were the ones who I truly admired the most – mainly for their unwaivering insistence on success!

    Anyway – I’ve enjoyed the discussion and will continue to follow the blog!

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  4. In my short-lived career, I didn’t really think that tenure was meaningful. Basically, as long as a teacher “behaved,” tenure was granted. But that was in *my* school. Maybe elsewhere, it was harder to get tenure. I never thought about tenure as being a means to guarantee the right to due process.

    Anyway, thanks for this thoughtful post. I enjoyed reading it.

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  5. I enjoyed head nodding through this post.
    And nodding some more as I considered the reasonableness of your points.

    Good teaching takes the ability to be able to hold failure, of students, your own and see it as part of the process. Use it to think again. Or take success and see the ego, over the rest of it-do discern if his represented growth. I watched a TED talk today talking about the student teacher relationship-with David Brooks. It certainly went a long way to talking about this emotional realm in which we know know, knowing more about the brain-so much of the learning is engaging. And how, really, much of what we are testing addresses what in effect is critical-how much do we consider things like this in our work? Because what we are there to do is constantly being informed by what we are learning. And so teachers must have the ability to lead and take chances. Ask different questions.
    Not be required to be de-skilled drill machines.

    ah, good post.

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