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!