Interview: Union Dues and Don’ts

March 01, 2001 5 min read
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In 1979, Deborah Lynch Walsh quit teaching in Chicago Public Schools because, as she puts it in her new book, Labor of Love: One Chicago Teacher’s Experience (Writer’s Club Press), “I was disillusioned by the lack of professional respect and authority afforded to teachers in the system.” She spent the next 16 years engaged in teacher union activities that would, she hoped, empower teachers, giving them a say in a system that too often treated them with indifference and, sometimes, contempt.

After a stint with the Chicago Teachers Union, Walsh moved to Washington, D.C., to work as director of the American Federation of Teachers Educational Issues Department, where she helped design a professional development program for teachers. In 1991, she returned to the CTU to create Quest Center—a forum for teacher leadership on school reform. But frustrated by her inability to foment deep change within the union, Walsh returned to teaching in 1995.

Her turbulent journey demonstrates that those who strive to professionalize teaching repeatedly run into obstacles, many of them created by unions themselves. For instance, some CTU members resented reform initiatives that would require waivers in their long-standing contracts; others, focusing on bread-and-butter issues, felt that teachers should have no truck with school reform. Still, since returning to the classroom, at Chicago’s Marquette Middle School, Walsh has run for the CTU presidency twice. Though she lost both times, Walsh and her reform agenda garnered 45 percent of the vote in 1998. She is once again a candidate in the upcoming May election.

During a recent interview with contributing writer David Ruenzel, Walsh discussed her career, her ideal of comanagement of schools, and the future of teacher unionism in America.

Q: You suggest in your book that many of the reforms enacted over the last two decades have done little to empower teachers.

A: That’s right. Take Chicago’s formation of local school councils in 1988. This was supposed to foster democracy at the school level, but in truth, the decisionmaking body was very lopsided in terms of teachers not having a say in the future of schools. Out of the 11 members, only two are teachers, so they have only a very small voice in what happens at the school. And teachers are understandably very reluctant to go up against the principal, who chairs the committee and has the real clout. Most teachers laugh at their so-called input because they know it has no real teeth.

Much the same can be said of charter schools, which are not yet working in terms of creating new models that can then be brought back into the school system. The problem is that there is not much in teachers’ contracts that allows them to make changes that boost student achievement.

Q: For the most part, principals don’t come off very well in your book. I suppose you don’t like the current emphasis on principals as educational leaders.

A: To me, the model is upside-down and backward. The teachers, at least as much as the principal, should be seen as educational leaders. But the way it is now, in most school districts, the principals have all the power, so they can be dictators if they so desire. The teachers can do little more than go along with what the principals want. Unless teachers have real authority over the bottom line—the expenditure of resources, the identification of staffing needs, and so on—the only decisions they’ll ever make are on the periphery.

Q: Are there good models out there for teacher unionism?

A: The AFT looked at the Saturn automobile company as a true model of labor-management cooperation—a place where people who are most affected by changes in policy play a major role in making those changes. We should be doing that in education now, instead of forming advisory bodies on the role of teachers that have no weight behind them. We should also look at the hospital model as a good one for teacher unionism. The hospital administrator is not considered a medical leader, but as someone who makes sure the equipment and staffing are available so that the doctors and nurses—the professionals—can do their jobs. So what I really want is comanagement of schools. Instead, we have a system in which the expertise of teachers is not being tapped; consequently, we have all these reforms foisted on people without any ownership.

Q: Can the teachers’ unions themselves be blamed for not playing a more active role in trying to reform schools?

A: There is a strain of resistance within some locals across the country. Not everyone believes that unions should be in the business of trying to reform schools. But what’s the alternative? If we don’t get more involved in school reform and do more to restore public confidence in public schools, we may not have much of a public school system left.

While it’s true that voters have rejected voucher initiatives in many states, we now have a president who has long expressed interest in vouchers. So, as I see it, teachers and their unions have no choice but to get deeply involved in school reform.

Q: Could it be that many teachers are primarily interested not in reform, but in job security and getting a paycheck?

A: Let me point to my own school, which has adopted the Success for All program out of Johns Hopkins [University]. The teachers recognized that changes were necessary, so they got on board with this program and made it happen. This was the same group of teachers that had ignored a previous reform effort concerning breaking up into smaller schools because it was unilaterally imposed from above by management. So you’ll find that there is enthusiasm for reforms that the teachers really want to commit to—so much so that at our school, 87 percent of the teachers voted to continue Success for All last spring.

Q: Everyone, it seemed, was talking about teacher empowerment during the ‘90s, and yet, as you point out, very little of it has actually happened. Are you at all discouraged?

A: No, because I’m fighting to get in a decisionmaking position in my union that will get teachers a voice. The only decision I have control of today, after 25 years in the Chicago public school system, is how I spend $100 of my own money for school supplies—period. Technically, in the year 2001, that’s the only decision I make. Is that a professional model? I don’t think so, and that lack of a real voice is what I’m hoping to change.


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