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A Thought Experiment for Union Leaders

By Celine Coggins — November 01, 2011 4 min read
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Note: Celine Coggins, founder and CEO of Teach Plus, is guest blogging this week.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting with union leaders from around the country to explain what Teach Plus is. Many love it; plenty are skeptics.

In every case, I begin with three opening points. First, I describe our mission as very similar to the union’s: to retain excellent teachers in the classroom and strengthen the teaching profession. Second, I talk about our belief that leadership opportunities are a key lever to helping promising young teachers extend their commitment to the classroom. Third, I state my personal belief in the value in the role of unions and describe the role Teach Plus has been able to play in helping a subset of Gen Y teachers to see that value for the first time. We’re usually off to a good start.

Then I say we focus our work on high-performing teachers* in years 3-10. It is at that point that many union leaders begin scratching their heads about whether our presence in a city will be a headache or a help. By design, our approach is not about the unity and equality of all teachers. In that way, it is at odds with an industrial union model.

I always acknowledge that the job of any union leader is much harder than mine, because of the diversity of the membership. Yet I think the pillars of our model are the basis of a worthwhile thought experiment for any union leader in the year 2011. We are an organization that operates with three important points of emphasis:
• An Emphasis on the New Majority
• An Emphasis on High-Performers
• An Emphasis on Solutions-Oriented Teachers

Oftentimes, I hear from union leaders that they are trying to orient their locals in a similar way and are wrestling with what that orientation would look like in practice. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the matter.

What would it mean to put an emphasis on the New Majority? After almost a half-century of baby-boomers as the dominant demographic in the teaching force, we’ve reached a tipping point whereby those with fewer than ten years classroom experience are now the majority in teaching. These are the teachers who are the future of the profession. These are the teachers who will determine whether the union will remain a force. Yet, they are wildly underrepresented in holding union offices and participating in union activities. Successfully getting newer teachers involved in the union would almost certainly lead to challenging debates within union halls. Union leaders must judge for themselves whether they are up for that challenge and what the future might hold if they are not.

What would it mean to put an emphasis on high-performers? To start, this bias would lead to a serious, quantified look at the proportion of time the union as an organization spends on (A) grievances and the due process rights of those with questionable records relative to (B) cultivating leadership and growth opportunities for others in the teaching force. That would open up a conversation about whether the organization could put more time and effort into those in category B. Quite possibly, the answer would be no. There may be no room to shift focus to better address the interests of high-performers. All of the other things the union does may be too important. In that case, though, the natural next question would be: how might the union benefit from an outside partner like Teach Plus to address an unmet need among an important subset of teachers?

What would it mean to put an emphasis on solutions-oriented teachers? At Teach Plus, we often hear from young teachers that they see their union as--to borrow a phrase that doesn’t fit exactly--the party of “no.” They see a need for reform** but don’t identify their union as taking a leadership role in reform. In many cases, this reputation is undeserved. In every city where Teach Plus has had a role in helping young teachers get involved in policy decisions, it has been with the collaboration of the union. Yet, this impression is pervasive. How do we get to a place where the accomplishments of the AFT Innovation Fund and the NEA’s efforts to close the achievement gap are more visible than the negative stereotype of the ever-complaining teacher down the hall who is very active in the union? I don’t know; but I know Teach Plus has been able to build that type of community on a small scale.

The field of education and the role of the union are at a point of transformation. Engagement among young teachers in the policy decisions that affect their classrooms is too low. At Teach Plus, we’re challenging that lack of engagement in a variety of ways, including encouraging teachers to get involved in their unions and to pursue union leadership. At the same time, all of our programs begin from the premise that differences in teacher effectiveness exist and that excellence should be celebrated and rewarded. I like to think what we’re doing will build a stronger union that prioritizes the needs of 21st century professionals and their students...but imagine others may have a different point of view.

*No, we haven’t found a magic bullet way to perfectly identify effective teachers, but we do believe variations in effectiveness exist, matter, and should be acted on. We’ve been refining our teacher selection processes since 2007 and have tried to learn carefully from over 1,000 applications to our leadership programs.

**Of course, reform means different things to different people.

--Celine Coggins

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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