Friday, June 10, 2011

Time to Piss Off My Friends and Colleagues

I admit it: I didn't go to Madison to protest Gov. Walker's end-around on collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin.

If there had been protests against the $900 million in education cuts he proposed in his budget, I would have been there.

I've been a teacher for 17 years, and I've been a member of the union the entire time. Not that I had a choice, of course. Once you're a teacher, you're a part of the union and have to pay dues.

And I know teacher unions have done positive things in our country. And I appreciate the benefits and salary I have now that teacher unions negotiated.

Teacher unions, though, also have, among other items:
1. Kept and protected bad teachers in their jobs. I had to work on a team with a teacher who hated middle schools kids, yelled continuously at them, and taught nothing. I often talked with her about the kids, trying to make something positive. But when it came time to renew her contract, the union fought the principal to keep her.
2. Does little or nothing to train and support struggling teachers.
3. Protects veteran and sometimes poor teachers with the first hired, first fired policy. A teacher I know well has been let go from her job once, and has received a lay off notice after six years in her new district. This is a teacher around whom school culture and curriculum is built. She is a dynamo of teaching knowledge and skill. Her kids love and respect her and, best of all, they learn. I would gladly trade jobs to be able to work with her again.
4. Protects veteran teachers in contract negotiations. Teacher unions in both Milwaukee and Kenosha, two large urban districts, have been asked to reopen their contracts to protect the jobs of hundreds of teachers who otherwise will be laid off. Both said they will not reopen negotiations.

So I'm not a fan of teacher unions at all. Our job is to teach kids. That's why we're here. Obviously, more teachers in the classrooms means better education for the kids.

In each district I've taught in, I've worked - and continue to work - with some excellent teachers, men and women who understand how kids learn and shape their teaching so that kids learn rich material and gain understandings about how their place in this world.

And while Walker's move to bust the union was draconian and back door politics at its worst, there is opportunity to reshape how we educate our children. (If, of course, the bill is approved by the courts.)

School districts could work with teachers to craft and create a series of steps that will make schools more effective. For example, we can create a fair evaluation system that is based on mutual goals, not on meaningless test scores. I would love to have an evaluation system that would allow my principal and I to sit down and create a set of goals together. Something like:
- special education students will improve their reading comprehension by 15 percent this year; or
- By the end of the year, 80 percent of my students will score proficient or above on district writing assessments.
- By the end of the year, 80 percent of the students in my class will be able to proficiently argue a solution for a real-world problem with a multi-media presentation.

The possibilities are endless, and each goal would address the Common Core Standards adopted by Wisconsin and other states.

And best of all, I could sit down with my principal, knowing full well that I have enough skill and experience to achieve those goals, and say "I want a six percent raise if I achieve all of them."

Districts and teachers could identify (teachers might even self-identify) those who are challenged in working with kids, adapting curriculum, helping kids learn meaningful material, and actually help them! We could create teams of teachers to help each other become better!

This could be powerful especially if there is a financial incentive to improve. Most people, if they know there is a significant financial incentive, are going to work a lot harder to achieve the task!

Imagine: District and school administrations working with teachers to create powerful learning environments, working together to help kids learn more effectively!

I'm fortunate to work in a district now that is small enough for the superintendent to be on a first-name basis with most of the teachers in the district. And our district has apparently always had a cordial relationship between the district and the teachers' union.

But I've also worked in a large urban district where the relationship was bitter.  That union usually hunkered down to protect itself and its members at the cost to the kids. That's not okay in my book.

I'm not sure I'm able to imagine what life without a union might look like, or if that's even a possibility. Teacher unions may be an anachronism in today's society. Or perhaps they're needed more because teachers need a strong united voice.

What would be my ideal is that we'd keep a flexible union that worked with districts to promote positive learning for all children. That's the only goal. Once we accept that as our goal, then we can talk.

Maybe that means longer school days, maybe that means more school days, maybe that means a different funding system, a different curriculum.

The bottom line is that any teachers' union works to promote kid learning, not protecting teachers.

Apparently, there's some card at my school I'm supposed to fill out to join the union. This has been such a challenging year trying to find things that work with my students in addition to finishing my special education licensing that I really have no idea what it's all about.

And the union leader in my school is a friend I trust - at least I hope she's still a friend after reading this! I want to buy her a beer and talk politics and unions and kids. She's one of those teachers who gets kids and creates awesome learning opportunities for her students.

She also believes strongly in the teachers' union for all its flaws. I look forward to hearing her thoughts about why I should re-join our union.

Regardless of Walker's misguided approach to "solving education's problems," we have a serious opportunity to re-shape how our unions and teachers organize for student learning!


  1. SO, here's the thing about unions: it's not "they," it's "us." You are the union. You vote for its leadership, you pay for its existence. If you want it to be something different, you need to take an active role to change it. When there are problems with unions, it's because people got lazy and let things go astray.
    Unions have nice budgets. There's a home care worker's union in L.A. that decided they wanted their dues to go to homeownership counseling, a dental clinic, GED classes, and citizenship classes and... POOF, those things are now available in their union HQ. You could make the teacher support and education you want happen. Just do it!

  2. The union protects all teachers, some are good and some are bad.

    It's not the unions job to train teachers. I bet they support ongoing professional development training, which should come from your employer.

    If you want the way the union behaves to change, join them and get involved. You can only change these things from within. No offence, but people complain all the time and never work towards changing things themselves.

    *This is posted anonymously because I have none of the accounts listed.
    Tim Harrison, Australian teacher.

  3. A six percent raise? Really? Public employees have no clue. Those of us who work in the private sector have had little or no increase in wages for several years while the cost of our health care continues to rise. Why are the public employees so pissed off? Walker is doing exactly what he said he would do. And by the way, I did not vote for him but I applaud his actions.

  4. Who said anything about a six percent raise? I didn't get that this year as a teacher.

    And I received several comments about working within the union to fix it. I worked within a union, discussed changes with union members but with no success.

  5. Do you read what you write before you post it? "If I achieve ABC I should get a six percent raise." I did not state that you had received a raise however; the fact that you think that based on YOUR standards that you should be so entitled to that is amusing. You work, what is it 156 days a year? Again speak to someone in the private sector who works 50 weeks a year. And if they are so well compensated, they receive two weeks of vacation. Again, all of you public employees, GET OVER IT!!!

  6. You seriously aren't getting it, Anonymous. The six percent - or any raise - is hypothetical.

    And this isn't about public employees. I worked in the private sector for a long time before becoming a teacher. And there are many days I would love to be back there. The grass is not greener.

    What is it that you're really upset about? Why shouldn't you be upset about corporate leaders' salaries, or athletes' salaries, or the widening gap between rich and poor?

    You've clearly been convinced that by fighting against others in the middle, becoming bitter with one group because you perceive they have something you don't.

    We don't. And neither do you. We are all in the same boat together, and it does no good when you try to pull the plug from my end of the boat. We both sink.

  7. A couple of things, Paul. Julie is correct, the union is "us." The union is also a democratic organization in which people vote on contracts, which means a union bargaining team (pre-Walker law change) had to present a contract that the majority of union members will vote in support of.

    So when it comes to union concessions to save jobs, I regret to say that people vote selfishly. Actually, union members vote selfishly on every issue. The task for union leadership has always been to do the greatest good for the greatest number though that usually means a small group of people will be upset.

    If they are not the ones to get laid off (which is always the majority of employees), they are not inclined to support concessions. One additional problem with KUSD is a distrust by employees that money saved on concessions will only be used to save jobs. No guarantee has been made on that.

    Seniority based layoffs try to provide some element of fairness. I will admit also that most teachers who sit on bargaining teams are experienced so seniority layoff language is in their own best interests.

    Believe me, when I served as union president, there was nothing I disliked more than layoffs, but it was also (at that time) clearly apparent that members were not going to vote to change their health insurance to save money to prevent layoffs. Fortunately, we only had about 17 teachers get laid off at the time, and all were immediately called back.

    As for unions protecting "bad" teachers, I have seen enough teachers counseled out of the profession, bridged to retirement, and forced to immediately resign (including veteran teachers) that I think it is much more about administration doing their jobs, not throwing up their hands, doing nothing, and saying, "The union will protect him/her anyway."

    Unions protect due process rights, but they cannot protect members from themselves. As a licensed principal, I know exactly how to fire a teacher and how to provide rock-solid documentation in order to do so.

    We'll see how this all pans out now with the law change. I can tell you right now I am very hesitant about ever speaking before the school board again. I never used to fear a backlash for exercising my right to free speech, but now I have a young family to support. My job is no longer just about me and my students. It is about the two little people who I need to provide for, take care of, bring to the emergency room in the middle of the night, etc. etc.

    Finally, I have always believed that unions always work best when GREAT, RESPECTED teachers become the union LEADERS. Unfortunately, it's hard to find time for that while working full-time as an educator and having a family, which, historically, has always nixed out many great leaders from union leadership ranks.

  8. One question, if you don't hit your goals, should you be fired?