How Can Teachers Unions Be Engines of Progress?

How can teachers unions be engines of change and progress?  This question is vital as unions look to define their role in the 21st century.

Today, unions’ roles have changed. Many unions are no longer fighting battles for a 40-hour work week, healthcare, or vacation time. They are no longer struggling against child labor and dangerous working conditions.  Unions are morphing into something else entirely. The issues are much more complex. Unions are now fighting for relevancy in a world that takes the last one hundred years of labor struggles and achievements for granted.

Let’s look at the recent events in Chicago. The teachers union there was striving not for more money, but for the idea that teachers’ careers should not be jeopardized by how their students perform on a standardized test. This is just one example of what unions, specifically teachers unions, have morphed into—a collective group of employees striving to make their profession more professional.

It is easy to demonize. All one has to do is to check the latest news to find stories about a teacher-student sex scandal or search out a YouTube video of a teacher berating a student, shot on a cellphone by another student.

But we need to stop for a minute and think. Are these really our teachers? Do they represent the profession? Or are they the outliers? I am sure you can think of a person with whom you work who is not up to par—the one who “mails it in” and does the bare minimum to keep up. This is not the product of the teaching profession or teachers unions, but human nature.  In all professions, one can find someone trying to get by with minimal effort. What’s unique about teaching is that it is so highly scrutinized, because it involves our future, our children, and every scandal is deemed newsworthy because of the setting.

But let’s look at what is not newsworthy, what goes unnoticed. For every horror story you hear about a teacher, there are countless positive ones that you will never hear. There are teachers who make students believe they can achieve something they never thought possible. There are teachers who put in seventy or eighty hour work weeks. There are teachers who perform on a stage every day, multiple times, evolving and adapting to every unique set of students in order to get their students to believe that what they are studying is, in fact, important in life. These are faces lost in the crowd. These are the stories that are not told.

But what does this have to do with unions and striking? When we think of teachers as human persons rather than the embodiment of popular stereotypes, we have a very different view of them. Let’s try an experiment. Ask your friend or neighbor how they feel about teacher unions. Write their response down. It will most likely be negative. Then let some time pass. After that, ask the same person how they feel about their child’s teachers. Ask them if they support their schools and teachers. Write down their response. The responses to these two prompts will likely be radically different. Why is there such a disconnect between the way the individual teachers are seen and the collective group of teachers are perceived? Why do we love Mr. and Ms. So And So but then demonize these same teachers when we think about them as being a part of a group?  For every bad teacher that unions “protect,” (which in many cases involves ensuring due process with opportunities for professional development and growth) there are many more good teachers the unions protect.

A teachers union’s goal is to be the force that changes education. We teachers know the research. We know what works and what doesn’t work. We know that a man in a suit who has never taught or been in a high school classroom since high school should not be judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to pedagogical decisions. Do not blame teachers for the bureaucracy that is forced upon their careers through the federal department of education, the state, and the county, in addition to the district and local board of education. It is not the individual’s fault when it is the system that is broken.

Let’s look at how this system works for teachers in an average community and school, such as my own. The idea is to hire someone who seems like they would be a good fit. Then, give them two years with observations, to make sure that they are disciplined and effective. The problem lies in the fact that after these two years, the principal has only two options: hire them with tenure or blackball them from the district (which in my case includes multiple high schools, more middle schools, and even more elementary schools) for life. That is the difficult choice these principals face.

The absurdity of the ban for life is clear when we consider the diversity that exists in many school districts.  The schools in my own district vary from those where over half the students receive a free or reduced lunch to those where that number is under 10%. Some schools have many students for whom English is a second language, while others have only a handful.  Can we say that it is impossible for a teacher to be effective in one of the situations, but not the other?  Of course not.

Beyond this, the question arises: how do you judge teachers in those two very different situations? Is he or she more “successful” at a site where test scores are high and poverty levels are low?  Should he or she be fired because test scores are low, while poverty is high? We know that poverty and language skills influence educational outcomes.  So much of what influences test scores occurs outside of the classroom’s walls.

At one site, the teacher need not worry.  They will inevitably be fine.  They could show up, do a decent job and the test scores would take care of themselves. Parents will be checking their kids’ homework every night and maybe paying thousands of dollars for tutors or test prep.  On the other end of town however, this same teacher could come in every day and work tirelessly battling and helping to resolve problems for students, including those outside of the classroom, while receiving little help from parents, who are working a second job, trying to make ends meet and escape poverty. In the former, a mediocre performance might translate into high scores, while in the second scenario, an outstanding teacher might fail to lift test scores.  These test scores cannot possibly be an accurate form of evaluation.  The evidence shows that they are simply not an effective measure of teacher performance.

This is the battle teachers unions are fighting. For teachers, the concerns are not about losing a hand to dangerous work equipment in a factory. They are about a system in which it has somehow become acceptable to use appallingly unequal criteria to judge educators. Such a system is profoundly unfair.

Yet some unions feel compelled to preserve the status quo.  On one hand, they realize tenure will most often be granted.  On the other, they see that collective bargaining is under fire by antagonists on the right, and they fear a return to the days when teachers were not given preparation time, lunch was an unpaid luxury, sick days were nonexistent, and the first way districts would save money was by cutting teacher pay or firing quality, experienced teachers and replacing them with low-paid novices.  However, teachers unions should have the courage to get beyond this legitimate concern and work to generate and bargain for ideas on how to create a system that provides security for established quality teachers, assists those hoping to get better, allows teachers to move to other jobs within the district that are a better fit, and makes it easier for principals to let a teacher go without ruining his or her career.

Unions must be a force for change. The status quo is not good enough.  Smart, progressive teachers recognize this and are ready for change.  What is essential is that teachers unions lead the way on this change, not those who seek simple solutions to complex problems.  Most legislators have spent a microscopic amount of time in a classroom (outside of quality photo-ops) since they graduated, yet they make decisions that teachers have to implement daily. The board of education, legally, cannot be made up of teachers.  Without teachers unions, the valuable lessons learned inside the classroom, where theory meets reality, will be lost.

Unions must be the ones at the bargaining table asking the difficult questions.  Statistics show that homework in elementary schools does not work.  Similarly, statistics prove that evaluating teachers based on test scores does not work, and that you do not need to evaluate teachers based on test scores to get high test scores.   Just look at Finland, a country whose test scores have soared even though their teachers are never evaluated based on those scores.  We know that the school day often starts too early, negatively impacting students’ ability to think productively. Most studies suggest classes should start later, perhaps at 9:00 am.  We know that the food we serve our students is not a healthy and well-rounded lunch (I’m sorry but nachos and chocolate milk is not lunch).

We know that what teachers want more than anything else (even money) is time.  Time to collaborate.  Time to talk with other professionals.  Time to plan and share best practices and discuss what worked and what didn’t work and why.  Unions should be creative in developing new ways to ensure this collaboration.  We should be the idea-generators when it comes to all of these issues including professional compensation, evaluation, and development; the structure of the school day; and all of the little details that can improve not just the education, but the lives of our students.

Why then are unions being attacked on all sides? Part of it is that we have not been dynamic enough.  We need to do more and become more innovative for the sake of our students and fellow teachers.  But an even bigger part of it is that people are buying into a false narrative of unions as nothing but a special interest group that “protect bad teachers” and seeks its own interests, while turning its back on the children they teach.

Yet teachers are there to educate, inspire, and change the lives of our students through public education, and countless teachers live up to these expectations. Our goal is, and always will be, to fight for our students.  Teachers unions cannot and should not ignore the interests of teachers, but we must always fight for what’s best for our students. Who else would you want fighting for your students?

Andrew Christian is a English teacher and department co-chair at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Jose Unified School District CA. He is a union representative of the San Jose Teachers Association, a member of the California Teachers Association and National Education Association.