This past weekend at Educon 2.6, Kevin Jarrett and I hosted a session entitled “How Unions Can help Foster Education Reform”.  This was prompted by a question I have had for a long time, which is whether the public view of unions aligns teachers more with hourly wage employees and less with professional, knowledge workers, to their benefit or detriment.  I come to this conversation not as a teacher, like Kevin, but as a parent, with concerns about education quality, progress, reform, and innovation.

I learned more than I can probably express here from teachers and union representatives that were in attendance.  One of the positive things we came away with is that Unions could do a lot more to serve as a hub of information, professional development, and innovation than many do today.  Trade unions often have halls where their members can come and learn new practices in their trade, trade ideas, try out new skills and the like, but less of this seems to happen in Teacher’s Unions than say, for carpenters or plumbers.  Unions could do a lot for their public image if they began to host, sponsor and encourage meaningful professional development among teachers and foster a sense of excellence and continuous improvement.

It’s clear that the public hears a lot of negative things about unions and teacher’s unions in particular.  There’s a sense that tenure is granted too soon (usually within three years) making it hard to get rid of teachers who may not yet have proven their dedication or even proficiency in their profession in that time period.  There’s a sense that some teachers continually go above and beyond what is required, but others work “bell to bell”, never doing anything other than they are required to under contract.  In a day and age when so many people are working well beyond their paid hours, the perception of teachers working a shorter day, having summers off and the like, fuels a sense of disrespect that’s often not supported by reality.

Reality included teachers taking part time jobs after school and in the summer to make ends meet financially.  Reality included paying daycare costs for young children that approaches what they are earning teaching.  Reality includes working in an increasingly hostile environment, where teachers are routinely looked down upon as babysitters rather than as skilled knowledge workers we entrust our children, and their futures, to every day.  All of this is much different from the picture painted in the media.  Reality includes teachers in Philadelphia public schools having to buy all their copy paper themselves, making it literally personally expensive whenever a child needs to print out an assignment or needs a copy of a handout.  All of this leads back to a discussion about Unions.

Unions exist to both collectively bargain for contracts for its members, and to ensure safe working conditions for teachers- and therefore, students as well.  Every time a teacher lodges a complaint because a building is in disrepair, or there are rodents in the hallways, this is not only reasonable, but it is something parents should be grateful for as well, as the teachers are looking out not only for their own welfare but that of their students. Every time a teacher looks to the union to help provide advocacy on their behalf to ensure a professional and enriching work environment, they are actually taking affirmative steps to ensure the environments in which our children learn are better as well.

We look at an education system that is underfunded, in part because the government deferred making contribution to pension plans in the past, that are now catching up with us during a time of economic contraction.  And while it seems logical to paint this escalating cost structure on pension plans and unions, it is our government officials who never adequately funded the plan in the past who are to blame.  It is the fact that people live longer than when the pension plans were developed that is in part to blame.  However, the teachers themselves have spent years giving of themselves to help raise and nurture our kids.  Like firefighters or police officers, they went into the profession thinking they were getting one thing, but ended up with something quite different.  Every time we ask them to take less, we are also asking our children and ourselves to get less and expect less in the process.

My favorite quote is an old African proverb, told to me by Rick LaVoie: “When the elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.”  When the adults in the system are at war, whether it’s districts, unions, teachers, parents, governments- the loser is our children.  The negativity breeds anything but the nurturing learning atmosphere we want for our kids.  They receive both the benefit and the burden of every argument and dispute, in the form of low morale and energy even from the best teachers, where generating that energy to invent, create and put more into your job seems pointless if its not recognized and appreciated.

Teaching is more like what my husband deals with as an OB GYN.  He has two patients to care for- the mom and the baby, and sometimes its necessary to balance the needs of one with the needs of the other, but they are inextricably tied together.  Likewise, as we look at our education system, we can’t ignore that the fate of our teachers and the fate of our children are inextricably ties together, and that if we hurt one, we in turn harm the other.  I don’t think I appreciated that as fully as I needed to before this weekend.

That said, I think teachers do have to ask their Unions to be more than lawyers and negotiators, but to be the center of what’s good for education and kids.  It should be helping teachers become better professionals every day, and help coach beginning and more experienced teachers alike to learn new techniques.  They should be a place where teachers can seek help and moral support when they have a particular challenge, but also be held accountable for improving and doing better when they struggle.  Unions can be so much more than what they are portrayed, but they have to see themselves in that role of professional coach and trainer, not just as a contractual negotiator and standard bearer.  The Union could be so much more, and could help to bring us together not only for the sake of the teachers, but for the sake of the children as well.  If that happens, I think you’ll find more parents and communities standing behind both teachers and unions, and less seeking to find ways to undermine them at every turn, in any way possible.