I stand with my unionized sisters and brothers, especially in Wisconsin, but everywhere where teachers and unions are under attack.
I am the lead union representative for more than 100 teachers in my school.
Today, all across the country, teachers are blogging their support for our unionized sisters and brothers in Wisconsin, and you can follow some of the results of that at EDUSolidarity
Today I want to tell you why I am proud to be a union member as well as a teacher.
I teach my students one period a day. We have 9, since some students take a zero period at 7:15 in the morning to squeeze in an extra course. Most of my students are sophomores, with at least 6 courses besides mine. I am only one of those responsible for helping them learn.
For me teaching is a collaborative effort. It includes not only those of us formally designated as educators, but all of the support staff as well.
Why are teachers unionized? Why do we insist on seniority being a major part of decision making about who stays and who goes?
Let’s go back. Why are any workers unionized? Because without cooperation, without the support of a union, an individual worker is at a huge disadvantage in negotiating with an employer – that applies to working conditions, to compensation, to benefits. As an individual, one is negotiating from a position of weakness. As part of a larger group, there is more leverage, and thus less capriciousness and even maliciousness in how those in positions of authority can deal with one who lacks the protection of a union.
Nowadays we hear all kinds of statements about how seniority is keeping bad teachers and forcing good teachers out. Baloney. As a union rep I have helped move out bad teachers, teachers who were not good for the students. I ensured it was done fairly, that they had due process. That protects me and all the other teachers.
How do we determine an “effective” teacher anyhow? If we make it all about test scores we will cheat the students of a real education.
That’s not the real issue. That is the rhetorical cover to replace more experienced teachers with noobies, largely over money. That’s right. Over money.
Put all the pieces together.
We have Bill Gates saying that teachers don’t really improve after their 3rd year. He says that additional degrees don’t benefit the students by improving the teaching. Oh, and he wants to stop paying for years of service.
My base pay is twice that of a beginning teacher. Absent protections of seniority, how hard would it be for an administrator pushed financially to find an occasion to find me, and other more experienced teachers, less than effective so that s/he could replace me with two bodies, thereby saving money on the budget.
The workman of any kind is worthy of his hire. Some apparently don’t believe that. They opposed raising the minimum wage, which is still far below what one needs to live. They want to pay less than minimum for teen-aged part-time workers.
If the mentality is only about saving upfront costs, then we may be penny wise and very pound foolish. In engineering, whether a nuclear reactor near Sendai or levees near New Orleans, failure to put enough resources in up front can lead to catastrophic failure.
The unwillingness to pay for the experience and quality of senior teachers leads to a constant turnover of younger, inexperienced teachers who are still trying to learn how to teach. While there may not be a catastrophe of the magnitude of Katrina, the loss of learning opportunities for our students is often irrecoverable.
I want to quote a dear friend, with her permission. Renee Moore is one of the most distinguished educators in the US. She is a former Mississippi State Teacher of the Year. She has sat on the boards of a number of key organizations, including the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She is a superb writer and speaker about education. She recently included the following words in an email a number of us received:
The seniority system was put in place in an attempt to end capricious, retaliatory firings and various shades of nepotism. Given the current status of our evaluation system, if administrators are going to use “keeping the most effective teachers” as justification for who goes and who stays, teachers and parents should unite to demand they be very transparent.
capricious – what did the principal have for lunch, or who from the Central office yelled at him today
retaliatory – Speak up, point out that this latest educational emperor is naked, and one might well be dismissed. Or if not dismissed, experience a retaliatory transfer, as happened to an outspoken teacher in DC who criticized the wrong-doings of one of Michelle Rhee’s hand-picked principals. Even Jay Mathews, in general a supporter of Rhee, criticized her on this.
nepotism – too many people forget when school boards would hire people who were related to them by blood or political affiliation even if they were unqualified. Absent protections, qualified people would be forced out for the nephews and the political contributors.
Due Process – and transparency – things that unions can demand on behalf of their members, that individual teachers cannot.
On Thursday I have been invited to the premier of a film. It is titled “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System” and the viewing will be introduced by the Ambassador of Finland. 25 Years ago Finland did not do well on international comparisons. Now their schools are acknowledged as among the very best in the world. They take time to train their teachers, insisting on the equivalent of a masters degree. Oh, and their teaching corps is 100% unionized.
The current highest scoring state is Massachusetts. As my friend Diane Ravitch points out, it also has a unionized teaching corps.
Some want to take away collective bargaining rights completely. Others want to limit the rights severely, excluding working conditions and issue of assignments. These steps would deprofessionalize teaching, and then allow opponents to further demean those who teach, and justify further slashing their compensation and benefits.
My periods are 45 minutes each. For some of my students, that 3/4 of an hour is more time than they spend with their parents each day. Do you want that 45 minutes to be with a trained, caring adult, who is not constantly fretting over how to pay basic bills? Do you want the teacher able to concentrate on the task of teaching our young people, or do you want to force her to take a second job in order to make ends meet?
Teaching should be an honorable profession. For all the rhetoric that some offer about great teachers and the importance of teachers, their actions with respect to policy provide those paying attention a very different picture. They claim it is important to hold teachers “accountable” in many cases for things they do not fully control, but scream bloody murder at accountability for the criminal offenses of the financial sector that have helped create the financial crises that are being used as justification for attacking the unions and the benefits and the compensation of public employees, including teachers. They rant about bad teachers having tenure but say nothing about promoting generals who violate international and US law in their treatment of those detained under their custody. They want to examine everything about teachers to try to find an excuse to bash them further, to delegitimize them, but God forbid there be an honest investigation of the wrongdoings and dishonesties that involved us in conflicts abroad that by the time they are done will, according to Nobel winning economist Joe Stiglitz, cost this nation at least 2 TRILLION – maybe even 3 TRILLION – dollars.
We shift wealth to the already wealthy, who then balk at paying for public services, perhaps because they have become so wealthy and powerful they have the ability to purchase whatever they need – including the occasional judges, senators, congressmen and governors. And more. But teachers are greedy because we want to keep the pensions to which we agreed as a form of deferred compensation, for our willingness to be paid less than people with comparable educational background.
I am a teacher. I am by choice. I came to it late, but it is what I should do.
I am willing to make some sacrifices. We do not have children of our own, in part because I could not commit myself to teaching as I do with the attention I give my students, were I to have the responsibilities of a caring parent. I make less than I did when I worked with computers, and my hours are far longer.
Yet now some would want you to believe that my experience is not worth more compensation, that I should not be paid for the additional professional education I obtained AT MY OWN EXPENSE, and would be happy to see me replaced by two brand new teachers, in some cases with only 5 weeks of training and who are not committed to stay beyond two years, a period at the end of which they MIGHT be becoming good teachers.
I have worked in Maryland, which is unionized in its schools, and in Virginia, which as a right to work state BANS collective bargaining by public employees, although Arlington, where I live and for one year taught, sort of gets around that. Which might be why they maintain a strong teaching force, without that much turnover. Which increases my real estate taxes because the good schools are something that draws families, along with our closeness to DC and the superb access to public transportation. My taxes go up because the value of my home goes up. The schools are a large part of that.
What is happening in Wisconsin and other states, if it goes unchecked, will destroy much of value in this country. It will start with schools, already a target. It will affect other public service employees. It will bleed into the private sector as well, depressing wages for everyone, and exacerbating the increasing economic inequity in this nation.
I am a union rep because I understand this, because I can speak – and write – to it.
I am a union rep because my fellow teachers trust me to keep them informed, to make sure their interests are represented fairly, both within the building and within the very large (over 130,000 students) school district.
I stand with my sisters and brothers in Wisconsin, in Indiana, in Florida, in Michigan, in all the places they are under attack.
Today many of us are speaking out. We are writing. We are wearing red.
Today we express our solidarity.
It is not YET too late to take back our country, to save our public institutions, and thereby save the middle class.
Not YET. But time is running out.
Stand with us.
Make a difference.
And remember, if you could read this, thank a teacher.
Solidarity! The only true form of Peace.
PS to read more posts on this theme, please go to EDUSolidarity
Kenneth Bernstein is a National Board certified social studies teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, where he serves as the lead union representative for the teachers. He blogs as "teacherken" at Daily Kos and has written for The New York Times, Teacher, CNN.Com, and Huffington Post. He is a 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher.
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