With movies like Waiting for Superman and now Won’t Back Down, teacher strikes making the headlines, and our children leaving school less prepared, this is definitely a question coming up all the time. I look at this question and have a few mixed feelings. I honestly don’t think there is a definitive yes or no answer… though I have no doubt many of you reading this do. That said, I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot lately, and I’m more than ready to spend a little time on my soapbox.
I was a teacher for 4 years. Had I not made the choice (and had the option) of becoming a stay at home mom, I probably would have stayed there longer. I taught at a school labeled a “failing” school in a strong union state. That said, I worked with an extremely innovative principal who consistently evaluated our practices, reformed our curriculum and regularly sought out the latest data to provide us with insight into our students. We worked hard to measure progress… and through blood, sweat, and tears, had lots of it to measure. Admittedly, not enough for us to be removed from the blacklist, but progress that we were proud of. We piloted programs for the district, worked hard to further our professional development, and dedicated ourselves to our professions above and beyond the normal call of teacher duty. At least most of us did.
I have had the experience of seeing teachers who sacrifice so much for the benefit of their students, teachers who will give their all to see their students grow and learn. On the flip side, I have also seen teachers who are done. I have seen classrooms filled with toys where the television was turned on during instructional time for the teacher. I have seen classrooms where I question the safety of the students. I have seen the data from teachers that show their students falling behind year after year, new class after new class. Why are those teachers still in classrooms? It’s not because they didn’t receive poor evaluations. It’s not because they haven’t been put on probationary periods by administration. In fact these steps and so many more were followed. In my opinion, it is largely (though NOT entirely) due to how protected teachers (particularly veteran teachers) are by their unions.
On the flip side, I have also seen the support a union can offer a colleague. A friend of mine had an extremely unfortunate situation arise, and the union was there. He was able to receive pay though he wasn’t in school, and support throughout the entire situation. Would this have happened if he was in a charter school without the protection of his union? I’m not sure. I feel like that would probably depend on the school and the specific charter. Good question though.
So, are teacher unions bad? When an organization forces teachers to leave students, leave school, and waste what should be instructional time, I would say that the answer is yes. When an organization forces a certain service (public education) instead of allowing for the opportunity of a competitive market (choice schools), I would say that the answer is yes. When an organization protects members in times of need (not WANT mind you, but NEED), I would say the answer is no.
So, how do we solve for an organization that doesn’t always prioritize student learning but offers support and benefits to the percentage of teachers that do? What do we do when schools are run politically and filled with bureaucratic nonsense… but also filled with our children who need to be prepared for the world? I don’t know.
As a mom, a former teacher, and a concerned member of our society… I simply do not know.