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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why teachers like me support unions

by folkbum

Note: This post is part of a national effort by teacher bloggers to express our support for the unions who keep us safe, secure, and sane in school. Keep up with EduSolidarity events via the twitter and at the EduSolidarity homepage.

On my very first day of my very first student teaching experience, the very first meeting in the high school cafeteria, the principal stood up, and among his first words, he said, "Teachers, I got your back. You're my teachers, I trust you, and I will go to the wall for you. I don't care if it's a student, a parent, central office. I stand behind you."

This was fifteen years ago, but I remember it, clearly, because in the years since I have never, ever heard it again.

Let me repeat that: In all of my years of professional teaching, I have never, ever, had a principal explicitly say that they supported me, believed in me, would fight for me. Ever.

This is one reason why I support unions. If I knew I could always count on my principal to stand behind me, I wouldn't necessarily need a union. In the years since, in fact, I have found that teachers and principals usually function as adversaries. (This is my experience; your mileage may vary.) I have had counter-contractual job actions taken against me, for being a union rep standing up for the contract. I have had principals threaten me and programs I directed for standing up for my colleagues. I have seen fellow teachers harassed, threatened, intimidated, often to the point of leaving the profession. Not because they were bad teachers, but because the principals were bullies.

Let me tell you about my friend M. We taught together at a school that both of us have since left. When we were building-mates, she was one of my heroes. The kids loved her, respected her, jumped through hoops for her. No one ever had a bad word to say about M, her dedication to the craft, her ability to manage and teach a classroom full of students who otherwise would be running the halls creating havoc. One of the best teachers I have ever met.

I ran into her a year after we'd both left that school, after we'd both landed at different schools in the district. She looked terrible. I asked how her new school was. "It's awful, Jay," she said. "The kids cuss at me. They don't do their homework. The fight outside my classroom. They fight inside my classroom. They have no respect."

This floored me, as I could not imagine any situation in which M did not have complete control of the learning environment, did not command the respect and adoration of even the unruliest of children.

I can only imagine what this must have looked like to a dispassionate observer. A teacher who deserved every exemplary rating she ever earned suddenly underwater in an out-of-control classroom. If teachers could be summarily fired, what might have happened to this hero of mine?

Thankfully, she wasn't fired. Based on her and her colleagues' complaints, the union stepped in, forced district administrators to address her school as being out of control. The principal was removed and, with the support of the teachers, a new regime installed. Behavior, attendance, and grades have improved. The next summer when I saw M, she was back to her old self.

I could also tell you about C, a science teacher, who had no knack for being in the classroom. Nice enough guy, but not getting the hang of the job. (Not just anybody can teach, contrary to popular rumor.) I was his building rep, and I worked with the principal to get him into something called TEAM--Teacher Evaluation and Mentoring. This is a program my union designed and developed, which was eagerly agreed to by administration. Teachers who aren't up to snuff must work with the principal and a union-provided mentor to identify areas of weakness and either improve, quit, or be fired.

C's mentor went to hell and back with him. So did I. And even the principal! But C never got back on track and, after a semester of mentoring, with the union's blessing (and encouragement), he left the classroom for good. Amount of time, money, effort spent to fire him? None. No bitter battle, no "rubber room," no protracted litigation or arbitration. Instead, a cooperative effort to send C off to a more suitable career than teaching, thanks to the union.

One of the most frequent arguments I hear about Why Unions Suck: Why should you, a talented teacher, they say (none spend time in my classroom, so how they know this I am uncertain). Why should you, a talented, highly-qualified teacher, be brought down to the same level as some schlub who sits around reading the paper all day while his students get high and have sex on the floor? Aren't you embarrassed or angry that you are treated the same as that schlub?

First, I say, I don't know that schlub. No doubt such teachers exist somewhere (don't tell them, but my sources say that fully half of all teachers are below average!), but I've never met one and certainly never heard credible tales of one whose actions were defended by anybody, let alone the union.

But second, I say, why do you, who thinks I'm a talented, highly qualified teacher, turn around and advocate for charter schools (where a "charter license" allows anyone to teach any subject) and private voucher schools (where no certification is required at all)? Why do you think a talented, highly-qualified teacher such as myself isn't embarrassed or angry that you think just anyone can waltz in and do what I do?

My union started not as a union, striking and bargaining for pay and all that. It started, actually, as a professional organization, an association of teachers dedicated to improving the craft and helping each other do what they do better. And it still does this: Its charitable arm offers grants to schools--including several million to my district in the recent past--to try new and innovative programs. It offers professional development at the local, state, and national level to promote better teaching. Its chief focus today is the classroom environment, which is not just where I work but where your children learn, advocating for smaller class sizes, greater teacher flexibility to address individual student needs, maintaining high standards for who should enter the profession--attracting and keeping talented, highly qualified teachers like me in the profession.

Why do you, I say, why do you want to strip that away from me? Why do you want to throw out a half-century of expertise in building a better teacher and finding (and funding) what works in education?

So I am union thug. My thug life involves a lot of late nights at school or grading papers, early mornings copying and planning. Whole weekends lost to school work or taking classes to keep up my license. Giving up my lunch hour for kids who need help with their work or a safer place to hang out than the cafeteria. Being everyone's dad, social worker, nurse, career counselor, coach, mentor. Spending thousands of my own dollars over the years on my classroom and my students. Putting up with constant attacks from the media and the political right that I'm a failure, my students are failures, and my district is a failure--break it up, they say, and you can all fend for yourselves.

Which is a sad thing to think about. In this country, no one should be forced to fend for themselves. From the 1770s when a small, scrappy band of rebels joined together to throw off tyranny, to the day Dr. King was assassinated while supporting public workers' right to join a union, to the crowded auditorium last night full of parents and teachers and students united in support of public education, the story of America is the story of union. The story of unions. And I support unions.

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