It is summer vacation and after many months of teaching, making supports and accommodations for my students, and writing IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans), I finally have time to watch a few movies from my favorite movie genre, documentaries. Here are a couple of documentaries that I've seen that have sparked some thoughts around unions.
After watching the PBS documentary, "Park Avenue: Wealth, Power, and the American Dream," (2012) by Academy Award director Alex Gibney and Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices, it got me thinking about how important unions are. Both documentaries highlight how important unions are to the lower-middle class in preserving fair treatment, fair benefits, and fair pay. The union in New York for teachers, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), ensures that we have proper health benefits, pension, and due process. The UFT argues on our behalf and makes sure we are neither taken advantage of nor accepting inappropriate pay, among other things. Our monthly salary in New York City, by the way, just breaks even with living expenses and does not really allow you to invest and save your money. So, in effect, we are scraping by. In any case, I feel lucky and grateful for my union; it helps ensure that I can teach to the best of my abilities, knowing that I will be a healthy and somewhat financially secure professional.
But, even mentioning "unions" can polarize people just like the mentioning of Teach for America can make two people feel like they are walking on egg shells, if one is for it and the other thinks its disastrous for education. A union is a force in and of itself that can lobby for its interest and protect its members from unwarranted abuses by employers and other agents. Left unchecked, though, it can also overextend its power. Many people remember the 2009 article in the New Yorker reporting about the Rubber Rooms in New York City where teachers were held indefinitely and paid according to their contract while their hearing was pending. The pay, I don't think, was the problem (although the time it took for the hearing to get to an independent arbitrator and the money wasted is a problem). The problem is with the logistics of how cases are handled in that these hearings become backlogged and no one addresses them in an efficient manner. It took between two to five years for a case to be heard by an independent arbitrator at the Department of Education. That timeline is unacceptable. If you are a perfectly competent teacher and you were unfairly fired because someone had an axe to grind with you, you should have a right to due process. Pay should not be suspended because it has not been proven that you are or are not competent. However, you should not be waiting around a room not doing your job while you wait for the hearing. The process was the problem and the process has since been revised for probationary teachers and others who get a discontinuance notice. The union and the Department of Education came to the decision together. It's good that there was discussion and eventual action regarding this issue. The discussions between the union and the DOE are like checks and balances, where one would hope both sides are open to listening and to self-edification.
These movies certainly made me think about how unions can be a powerful force for the good, but unions also need to be self-policing in making sure it does not overextend its power. So far, I think my union is doing a good job. With all the vitriol being written about unions and having a documentary lambasting teacher's unions, I think people need to understand that unions are not out for their own self-interest. They protect people in public service and protect their livelihood when they are doing their jobs. The narrative that unions protect "bad" teachers is so prolific that people forget the union's larger purposes. Also, in any occupation, there are lazy workers. Unions do not intentionally protect them just like how employers do not intentionally hire lazy workers. Unions follow measures and protocols such that there is due process. They do not knowingly protect "bad" workers upon knowing that there have been transgressions. On the contrary, they terminate them immediately if they know there have been transgressions.
It's summer time. I finally have time to relax, work at a leisurely pace, and prepare for next year's students. During this time off, people have asked me, what do you do during the summer?
Well, many things. At present, I am working with the mayor's office helping run one of their international, educational programs called Global Partners, Jr. I teach in the summer program at a local library. I am taking sign language classes to teach my students in the upcoming year how to sign. I tutor a young student in my neighborhood. I develop websites. I attend education workshops like Responsive Classroom that educate me on how to create a more respectful classroom where the social curriculum is just as important as the academic curriculum. I attend specialty workshops like Orton Gillingham that train me in multi-sensory teaching of students with disabilities and dyslexia. I am catching up on reading the Heroes of Olympus series and have been enjoying time with family and friends.
I have mixed feelings about summer vacation. On the one hand, I enjoy time off and planning my own activities. I find lots of great opportunities for professional development during the summer. There are many grants and summer opportunities I can apply for that help me deepen my skills and knowledge of the subject I teach. I also, like any person, enjoy the freedom to choose what I want to do on my own time, whether that is continuing working or spending quality time with friends and family whom I haven't seen during the busy school year. Summertime is a time to rejuvenate and reflect for me, professionally and personally.
On the other hand, summertime for students can represent an opportunity to really explore other activities and develop skills in other areas or it can just be mindless video game playing time that goes unchecked. Unless students come from a proactive family that helps them make the most of their time either in play or in structured activities with reading time carved out, it's hard for a student not to be a victim of the summer slide, where a child's literacy skills slip because of inconsistent practice. For families that do not/can not have a plan for their child, summertime represents a slide. Luckily, there are opportunities out there that encourage students to be involved in structured activities like the summer program for which I am working.
Summer time, for me, has its pros and cons. I wouldn't be opposed to spreading it out more evenly across the school year so that there isn't such a large lapse for students. Concentrating it in smaller chunks may actually be more healthy so that students and teachers alike get time to refresh and catch up on sleep.
The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and do not reflect those of institutions, organizations, or employers associated with me, past or present.