Union leaders have started to wise up. They know that teachers think their membership fees should cover more than contrtact negotiations and benefits packages. Their members want help becoming better teachers, too.
This summer, both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers plan to make a splash with major policy recommendations for how unions can increase their role in professional development.
The question for national leaders is not whether unions should take more responsibility for developing their members' knowledge and skills, but how. They know full well that education reform is putting unprecedented pressure on teachers. Increasingly, they hear requests for assistance from members looking to unions for help with problems of practice, not just benefits and grievances.
And by embracing professional development as a new role, the national unions could take another step toward forging new organizations that reflect the complexity of teaching. Leaders acknowledge that in the late 1990s, industrial-style unionism is a poor fit with the movement to give teachers more leadership and decisionmaking roles in their schools and districts.
Creating a Nation of Teachers as Learners
But it is also true that, in some districts, union practices themselves are a major barrier to improving professional development.
Contracts can put strict limits on teachers' activities. Some teachers, steeped in the union mentality, resist putting forth any extra effort if they are not paid for each
hour of their time. In the worst cases, teachers walk out of workshops when they've put in their allotted time for the day. Eagle-eyed shop stewards in schools also can discourage willing teachers from getting together with colleagues if it means violating contract rules.
Keith B. Geiger, the president of the NEA, admits that too-rigid contracts can harm teachers more than help them, especially as they are expected to take on more tasks.
"There's no question that the policies that we have in our contracts were bargained for some very good reasons, but it's now 1996," he says. "In the whole shared-decisionmaking process, all of us have to look at more flexibility."
The NEA's National Foundation for the Improvement of Education is preparing a report to be released at the association's annual Representative Assembly in July. The document, in the works for two years, will review exemplary programs and approaches and include policy recommendations.
Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, also plans to call for unions to take on a larger role in teacher training and retraining at the AFT's convention this summer.
"The bottom line is that teachers' unions can no longer thrive if they ignore the professional needs of their members," says Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association, an AFT affiliate in New York. "The newer members lookto the union, and expect it to pay as much attention to their professional needs as to the bread-and-butter issues."
Urbanski, whose union has crafted a number of professional-development projects, points out that taking responsibility for members' knowledge and skills forces unions to take a different attitude, focusing on quality control and enforcement of standards.
"We can no longer say, 'You are right because you pay dues.' We have to say, 'We have standards, we don't want you in our union,'" says Urbanski, who has won re-election to his post every two years since 1981. "And surprise, surprise, you don't get impeached or assassinated when you take that position. Good teachers feel very frustrated or get angry when uncaring or incompetent colleagues continue."
In 1993, the Rochester Teachers Association launched the Leadership for Reform Institute with funds generated by a membership-dues increase. The institute publishes a pedagogical journal called Raising Standards, provides grant-writing assistance to teachers, and sponsors seminars and workshops on teaching and professionalism.
The union also holds an annual conference on instructional issues, at which nearly 1,700 teachers are expected this year. For those who can't attend, the district has agreed to televise portions of the conference.
The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers also has been at the forefront of promoting professional development. The federation's new contract includes a 20-page section on the topic, including a mentor program for teachers, a districtwide staff-development advisory committee made up mostly of teachers, and salary advancements tied to certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
Though the federation had developed various projects over the past few years, says union president Louise Sundin, the programs were offered in a "piecemeal" fashion.
"We finally decided we needed to put it all in writing, in one place, and in a place where teachers trusted," Sundin says.
The union had an advantage in working with the 47,000-student district, she says, because its desire to create professional-development programs outlasted a string of several superintendents and administrations.
"We've kept a pretty consistent vision of where we wanted to go to professionalize teaching," Sundin says. "We think the union has a responsibility and a role in training teachers for the profession."
But teachers' unions can face roadblocks in taking on these new responsibilities when districts are reluctant to give up control or when poor labor relations poison a cooperative atmosphere.
Administrators in the San Diego Unified School District, for example, balked at the San Diego Teachers Association's request to negotiate a permanent council to oversee professional development. The issue was one sore point in a five-day strike in February.
The district argued, and the union later consented, that teachers should develop the project through a separate "memorandum of understanding" rather than through their labor contract.
In Poway, Calif., a 29,000-student district with a reputation for innovative approaches to professional development, a yearlong contract struggle has put many programs on hold.
The Poway Federation of Teachers had helped create a peer-evaluation program for new and experienced teachers and an intervention plan for troubled tenured teachers. Poway also offered a mentor-teacher program, which a union-district panel oversees. And Poway educators had just formed a professional-development governing board, with five union and four district representatives.
But because of the tough negotiations, says union President Don Raczka, everything except the new teachers' peer-review plan has been shelved.
Raczka says it was "gut-wrenching" to see programs he had helped create die. But it was impossible to maintain the needed level of cooperation with the district while haggling over a contract.
"You can't be in a dispute and hold hands and skip along a path at the same time," Raczka notes ruefully.
Too often, school districts offer programs that aren't helpful for teachers and then treat teachers' requests to create their own as a bargaining issue, observes Ellen Dempsey, the president of IMPACT II, a national nonprofit group that funds and coordinates teacher-developed projects.
"For the school systems to look at it as something they're giving to the teachers, rather than something they're giving to the kids, is a ridiculous way to look at it," Dempsey argues.
Rochester's Urbanski agrees--and that's why he says collaboration on professional development has to parallel working together on collective bargaining.
The Rochester school system and the RTA have retained a Massachusetts-based conflict-management firm to work toward "win-win" bargaining that benefits both sides.
"We have to invent ways to protect the new work of teachers' unions and school districts from the old hazards," Urbanski says. "Neither the interest of the union nor the district is considered to be the priority. The priority is what's best for the kids."
Vol. 15, Issue 30, Page s15-17