As the weather turns colder my social life picks up a bit.
Dinner with friends. Thanksgiving. Holiday open houses.
When I first started teaching and I would find myself sitting at a dinner next to somebody I didn’t know, we would exchange the usual small talk questions.
One being the inevitable, “So, what do you do?”
When I responded with, “I’m a K-5 Art teacher,” their eyes would open wide and and with a smile they would say, “That must be so much fun.”
I would laugh and say, “Most days.”
And I wasn’t lying.
As the years passed my answer would draw a different response. Complete strangers would narrow their eyes and pepper me with questions about seniority, tenure, pensions and unions.
“Why can’t they fire the bad ones?”
“I just told you I teach little kids art and you want to talk about tenure? Seniority is what you find interesting about what I do?” I would think to myself.
Okay. Maybe sometimes I would say it out loud.
But I understood. Over the course of my career teachers have been turned into scapegoats by political opportunists of all stripes and by both political parties. Urban schools in particular were declared failing and the teachers were the reason. Teaching was among the few careers open to professionals of color and women, easy targets for racism and gender bias. And teaching became viewed as a technocratic exercise. No longer was it understood as a complex combination of science, artistry, subject matter knowledge along with a concern for the well-being of children.
As private sector unions represented a smaller and smaller percentage of the population, public sector unions – like teacher unions – became the last ones standing.
It was all a perfect storm.
“Let me ask you this,” I would say to my dining companion. “New Trier teachers have a union, tenure, seniority and a pension. Just like teachers on the west side.”
New Trier is a public high school on the wealthy north shore of Chicago.
“So, acknowledging those common factors in predicting student performance, the primary difference is poverty.”
There are plenty of studies that show that states with teacher unions have students who perform better on the concrete things that can be easily counted, such as test scores.
Then there are studies that show no consistent correlation between teachers that have collective bargaining and states with right to work laws.
But with a mixed bag of research data, my experience is that teachers having a voice in classroom practice means better outcomes.
You can argue the other side if you want.
“But unions protect bad teachers,” my dinner companion will say. “You have to admit that schools can’t fire a teacher.”
As a union grievance chair and union president for a very long time I am forced to disagree.
“Our collective bargaining agreement is a user manual for getting rid of bad teachers,” I would explain.
Although I have never thought firing somebody is the a one-size-fits-all solution for employees in any field who may be struggling.
More importantly, our collective bargaining agreement gave me a weapon to protect the very good teachers. The idiosyncratic ones. The older, experienced ones who have earned a higher paycheck. The teachers of color. Trans and Gay. Those with disabilities.
And I can testify that more often than not, those were the teachers I found myself sitting across the table and defending.
Sure. There are laws that protect many of those teachers who fit into these and other categories. But the law is never enough.
What concerns me most these days is how well our teacher unions are willing to stand up and fight to preserve this important role.
And how quickly they seem to be willing to concede ground on what it took years to win.
Because it seems we are all on the defensive these days.
More about all this in coming blog posts.