I am a big supporter of the teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, with Arizona on the horizon of a strike. It is important that people outside the field of education recognize the important role teachers have and begin to treat them as other professionals with competitive salaries and benefits. While some view teachers as the single agent that can bring about change (propaganda brought upon by movies like Waiting for Superman), we should recognize that teachers have lives of their own, too, and cannot devote every single bit of their time to the classroom. From these strikes, we see an assortment of educators who work multiple jobs to make ends meet. How have the working conditions in this country deteriorated so much for teachers, such that it's similar to the working conditions of the 1960s (see linked article above)? Salaries are despicably low and many states are now right-to-work states, which cannot collect dues from members to collectively bargain, effectively crippling the union.
It is inspiring to see the teachers strike despite the right-to-work laws. Something is finally being done about the low salaries we have endured. Since becoming a mother, time has become even more valuable to me and I expect to be compensated for the good work I do. I prioritize my time very carefully at work--making sure the plans and materials are ready for the week's lessons, making sure I differentiate all the lessons so all my learners can achieve in their zone of proximal development, and making sure I stay on top of my students' IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans). However, this work often takes up more time than there is in the school day. I am allotted my lunch and one prep period per day to do all of those things, so yes, I will take work home to finish once my children fall asleep in their beds. I wish special education teachers and teachers in general were compensated for the many hours they put in to teaching their students.
I think respecting teachers also means respecting and valuing their time. Respect the hours teachers work (e.g. end the professional development workshop when it is supposed to end so teachers can get home to their families) and compensate them for extra work they do outside of the school building (e.g. planning for math curriculum, preparing for project based learning experiences, etc.). The budget is part of the conversation of what's wrong with education in America these days. If politicians actually valued their teachers, they would prioritize education funding and direct it towards teacher salaries instead of the next new trendy fad that an outside education consultant with limited classroom experience advises.
Unionizing (collective bargaining at its best, even without formalized union representation) is important because unions not only protect students' interests (e.g. lower class sizes, making sure special ed students are entitled to their services, etc.), but they also help ensure that their teachers are well rested (not working multiple jobs) and have a livelihood of their own. Pay our teachers well so that we can raise our families while not having to sacrifice the profession we love.
Here is an excellent article, written by Richard D. Kahlenberg in the American Educator magazine by the AFT (America Federation of Teachers) Volume 39, no. 2| Summer 2015. In it, Kahlenberg details the history of unions and why due process is so important to maintaining high quality teaching that is inclusive and free of politics. Indeed, tenure is a fundamental aspect of "workplace democracy" (Kahlenberg, pp. 8). This is an excellent read for those of you that want to understand the reason why teachers should be unionized and have tenure.
PDF of article available for download here.
Kahlenberg, R. (2015). Tenure: how due process protects teachers and students. American Educator, 39 (2), 4-11.
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.
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.