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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Education Opinion

Response: Teachers Unions ‘Must Claim the Mantle of Educational Leadership’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 10, 2018 22 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What should teachers’ unions look like 20 years from now?

Teachers unions are under attack and, in fact, they might be entering their most perilous time in decades. At the same time, as teachers in West Virginia have shown us, good organizing can always find a way forward.

This seems like a good time to consider what our unions could and should look like twenty years from now.

Today’s contributors are Brian Guerrero, Nikki Milevsky, David Fisher, John Borsos, Jennifer Thomas, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and Shannan Brown. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Brian, Nikki and David on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Readers might also be interested in two resource collections I’ve developed:

The Best Resources For Learning About - & Supporting - The West Virgina Teachers

The Best Resources For Learning Why Teachers Unions Are Important

The Best Resources On The Awful Friedrichs & Janus Cases

Response From Brian Guerrero

Brian Guerrero is a Teacher on Special Assignment for the Lennox School District in Lennox, Calif., president of the local Lennox Teachers Association, and a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

Teachers unions are, at their core, Labor Organizations. This is true today and it will be true twenty years from now. We negotiate contracts and working conditions, salaries, and benefits, on behalf of and at the direction of our members. We grieve contract violations and make sure members are fairly represented and receive due process. We safeguard that teaching remains a viable, dignified, and desirable profession and that teachers have a say in decisions that impact their classrooms and students. We are the collective voice of teachers and other educators, and students and schools are better for the environment we help create.

Being Labor Organizations, however, does not prevent us from becoming something more. Even now, we see many teachers’ unions growing into Professional Organizations. As states, counties, and school districts cut back on professional development and new teacher support programs, teachers unions are taking on these responsibilities. And that’s how it should be. Union PD is teacher-driven and peer-led, and provides teachers with practical solutions and innovative ways to help students succeed. The Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC) is one of the first attempts to scale that concept up from the local level to a state-wide, union-led professional development program, and I expect to see more initiatives like the ILC sprouting up across the country.

Second, teachers’ unions need to evolve into Community Organizations. Public schools are the beating hearts of their communities. When schools thrive, communities thrive, and when communities are healthy and prosperous, so are their schools. As some of the most enduring institutions in any community, teachers unions in the coming years should play an increasingly vital role beyond the schoolyard, working with other community organizations to promote greenspaces and clinics, parent education and prenatal vitamins, immigrants’ rights and safe streets, and so on. We must work with and for parents and use our clout to make sure their voices are heard and valued by schools and districts.

Finally, we must become participatory Advocacy Organizations. Teachers unions are already involved in politics, but the average teacher has little interest, and even less personal involvement. All teachers need to understand that public education, as an institution, is under tremendous pressure from those who would wring profits out of our students, families, and schools, who care not that schools are parts of communities or that teachers are professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to helping students find success. Many of our students and communities find themselves under attack because of the languages they speak, the religions they practice, the countries where they were born, the way they express gender, or whom they love. We educate students who live in poverty and students who lack medical care and nutritious food. To prepare students for success in college and careers and life, we must educate and advocate for them, in the classroom and in the principal’s office, at the school board meeting and at the ballot box, in elected officials’ offices and on the streets if necessary. It’s going to take every teacher getting involved. Politics must cease to be something “the union” does and become something we all do just as naturally as we plan a lesson or attend a PD or help organize a community event. Only then will our students have the schools and education they truly deserve.

Labor, Profession, Community, Advocacy. Some chapters already embrace ideas like these, but I believe in the next 20 years, every chapter will embody a much broader definition of what it means to be a “teachers union.” The success of our communities depends on it.

Response From Nikki Milevsky, David Fisher, & John Borsos

David Fisher is President of the Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA), Nikki Milevsky is SCTA First Vice-President, and John Borsos is SCTA Executive Director (Editor’s Note: I have been a proud SCTA member for the past 15 years!):

Just Because You’re Paranoid, Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t Out to Get You.

The labor movement has been under direct corrupt attack for over sixty years. In 1954, the percentage of American workers represented by a labor union peaked at 33%; today that number is around 11%. In 1954, the vast majority of unionized workers were in private sector; today, more half of all unionized workers are public sector employees. Today, only 6% of private sector workers are unionized; in the public section 37% are unionized, with the National Education Association, the largest labor organization in the country.

With private sector unions decimated, it is no coincidence that the assault on labor has moved to the public sector. Like Willy Sutton, the attack is directed at education unions because that’s where the money is. Unfortunately, the opposition to education unions is not just limited to the far right. The Democratic party is filled with “reformers” who hold a hostile view of education unions.

So where will education unions be in 20 years?

Quite simply if there is not an immediate, dramatic, even revolutionary change in the way we operate, we have no reason to assume our future is any different than the fate of labor in the private sector--an ever-diminishing role isolated to a few geographies.

Here in the Sacramento City Teachers Association, we have begun to implement a few changes that are helping to revitalize our association, and improve our school district:

  1. Expanded membership involvement

    : For the first time in our history, we greatly expanded our bargaining team to include a representative from virtually every one of our 75 school sites. A broad spectrum of educators has been recruited to participate in joint committees with our employer to bargain over an expanded scope of issues, from report cards, to limiting testing, to the adoption of curriculum, to the development of professional learning.

  2. Vigorous enforcement of the contract

    : In the past 3 years, we have won more than $1 million in back pay for educators and forced the hiring of additional counselor and special education teachers by relentlessly enforcing our contract.

  3. Multi-platform methods of membership communication

    : We are living in a ever-changing world, and the manner that educators receive information varies. Some prefer emails, others Facebook or Twitter. We try to communicate in numerous ways--a weekly email update, updated Facebook and other social media, as well as work site meetings. The most effective means of communication remains face-to-face engagement.

  4. Educators as public-school advocates:

    Finally (but not exhaustively) we view our association not just as a vehicle to advance the wages and working conditions of educators as educators, but also to incorporate the advocacy role of professional educators in improving our school district. Many SCTA members are both teachers and parents of students in the District. This broader outlook has led to coalition work with parents, students and other community stakeholders who share our values and see the need for sustained activism to protect public education.

  5. Organize the Unorganized: Organized labor needs to move beyond those it currently represents. In education, real efforts have to focus on organizing charter school educators, with a sensitivity to the issues that are unique to those educators.

By no means do we think that we have all the answers. We have made and will continue to make mistakes, but intuitively understand that there is a need for action, rather than passivity.

There is no reason to think that the assault on educational unions will abate in the next 20 years. The real question is whether we have the courage to do something about it.

Response From Jennifer Thomas

Jennifer Thomas was an educator and union leader in California for for 16 years, where she taught English and then served as president of the San Jose Teachers Association. She currently lives in Portland, Ore., where she works in employee and labor relations:

What should unions look like 20 years from now?

1) Spend better. Unions must spend member dues better. For example, in education, small local unions cannot afford to release a person full-time to organize and advocate for key issues for those whom they represent. While messages from state and national affiliates are drilled into local leaders to organize, connect, and empower, that mandate is nearly impossible if a local chapter cannot afford to have that person do that work full time. At the same time, union budgets allocate dollars on less impactful programs like conferences or workshops that often serve the same attendees over and over again, with no clear measure for efficacy or impact on the broader membership. This choice continues to undermine the capacity of local leaders to be the leaders the locals need which, in turn, has an effect on the capacity of the larger organization to organize and advocate. Unions must pare down to the essential work of building the message and the knowledge of those who lead, first and foremost.

2) Solve problems. What is the organization doing to change what needs to change? My local, the San Jose Teachers Association, undertook two significant efforts to change in response to what we thought were fundamental problems affecting our members. As a result, we successfully sponsored legislation that created paid family leave for parents- biological, foster, and adoptive- working in public education. We also wanted the legislative flexibility to build a better evaluation and probationary system, but were savaged by other union members who didn’t believe that we could possibly create a system that would work. That kind of inflexibility and lack of willingness to empower risk-taking is shortsighted. The wisdom of SJTA’s ideas aside, unions must return to a proactive role, one that saw the creation of strong work rules and minimum wages; equality in pay; secure retirement; education for all children. Unions used to be the nexus of new ideas. They should be again.

3) Get local. At SJTA, I didn’t care if we never sent another member to a statewide conference. I wanted funding to hire a community organizer. Navigating the labyrinth of local organizations who were also deeply connected to working families, fully committed to causes of justice, equality, and empowerment, and ready to engage in public education was an absurdly long journey. Unions, particularly those outside the trades, must help local leaders connect to labor groups outside their own scope to maximize the positive impact in our communities. It’s powerful; it’s simple, and it every single labor leader needs to make it happen or to help another labor leader make it happen for themselves.

There is a lot to be worried about out there. Powerful entities are disturbingly adroit at turning middle and working class American on each other in order to distract from the reckless and irresponsible policies that have rotted physical, societal, and economic infrastructures. When unions are at their best, they have protected and empowered ordinary American in ways that have salvaged the American dream for those who couldn’t afford to buy a shot at it. But, if unions do not return to their grass roots, if they do not allocate resources directly and relevantly, connect to members directly and meaningfully, and if they do not support locals in connecting to other values-based entities in the labor world, then the message will continue to degrade, shouted down by those who believe in slogans on hats as a path to American greatness, a distant shadow of a movement that helped make America’s 20th century strength a reality.

Response From Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten is President of the American Federation of Teachers. She has been a frequent contributor to this column, and you can see her previous responses at:

* There Is ‘Hope That ESSA Will Bring Positive Change To Classrooms’

* Policy Decisions Must Be ‘Done With’ Teachers, Not ‘Done To’ Them

* Response: Teacher Evaluations Need to ‘Support, Not Sort’

* We Need “Fewer John Waynes & More John Deweys”

* How Peer Assistance Can Improve Teacher Practice

We can’t begin to think about what teachers unions will be like in 20 years, or even five years, without discussing the current threats to public education and the escalating attacks on unions.

In January, I gave a speech arguing that the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act provided a template to move past the education wars that dominated the last decade and to invest in what works for public schools and kids by focusing on children’s well-being, powerful learning, educator capacity, and real collaboration.

That was before Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was confirmed and launched a full-scale assault on public education. It’s no exaggeration to say DeVos is the most anti-public education secretary of education ever, and she has shown herself to be woefully unprepared and uninformed for the role.

Her budget proposal takes a meat cleaver to public education. She’s sided with predatory for-profit colleges and student loan companies over students. She refused to say that she would force private schools that receive federal funding to refrain from discriminating. And her civil rights chief blamed rape victims for their own assaults.

At every turn, DeVos has used her office to champion vouchers and privatization at the expense of the public schools that 90 percent of America’s children attend, despite the preponderance of evidence that these strategies hurt kids.

While this was happening, President Trump put one of the most anti-worker justices ever on the Supreme Court. And now corporate and wealthy interests are pushing the court to decide on a case called Janus v. AFSCME, which seeks to severely undermine workers’ freedom to join strong unions and advocate for their families, those they serve and their communities. A decision on Janus could tilt the balance even more in favor of those who have rigged our economy and our politics against working people.

Despite all of this, I am optimistic about our ability to resist these attacks and reclaim our future.

One reason is that the public has never been more engaged in saving and strengthening public education, as we saw with millions of people taking action around DeVos’ nomination. Gallup just released a survey showing that support for public education is up 7 points since 2012, and poll after poll shows that parents support their public schools.

Parents and teachers want the same things for our schools, and our combined efforts are a powerful force against those who want to defund and decimate public education. We both want safe, welcoming, well-funded neighborhood public schools. We want every school to be a school where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach, and kids are engaged.

Another reason I’m optimistic is that the AFT is a strong and growing union. We just announced that our union has reached 1.7 million members, our highest membership ever. People are seeking us out because they want a stronger voice, the freedom to prosper and the chance to stand up for those they serve--and that’s what a union enables. Right now, support for unions is at its highest level since 2003.

So it’s clear that, after years of being embattled, the two institutions that enable broad-based prosperity--public education and the labor movement--are viewed more positively today. We see it not just in public polling but on the streets, as we fight for funding, educational justice and opportunity, and at the bargaining table. For example, in cities like Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, where education has been a battleground for years, we are seeing a new effort to find common ground and reach contracts that treat teachers like professionals and strengthen public schools.

At the same time, while the values of both public education and the labor movement are enduring, the strategies, tactics and actions must change to respond to the times and to communities’ needs. We must practice what we call solution-driven unionism, and engage communities and our members around what public schools need in order to be the ladder of opportunity for students. That means not only calling out what is wrong--as those who want to privatize do when they constantly disrupt, destabilize and defund public schools in the guise of helping students--but also fighting for what we know works for kids. And we must have skin in the game around these strategies.

For us, that means leading on solutions like community schools and career and technical education. It means supporting deeper and more powerful learning, including more project-based learning and less testing. It means investing in teacher-leader and union-created professional development programs that align to what teachers really need and want--programs like Share My Lesson, our online platform of teacher resources. It’s what we are doing in McDowell County, W.Va., the eighth-poorest county in the United States, by convening business, nonprofit and government leaders to transform educational and economic opportunities in the county. And it’s what we’re doing through our partnership with First Book, which has grown beyond getting books into the hands of kids to launching our new Essentials for Kids Fund, a national initiative aimed at addressing the need for books, educational resources and basic-needs items for educators and their students in districts where the public schools are severely underfunded.

Teachers unions are not perfect. We have not been nimble enough or responsive enough at times. But let’s be clear: We are being attacked by very powerful interests who don’t want teachers to have a voice or the freedom to seek a better life for themselves and their families. Teachers unions, like the rest of the labor movement and like public education, may look different in 20 years, but their purpose and values are enduring because the need for teachers to be heard and not simply seen is enduring.

It is my hope that the ideological fighting will ebb--particularly, that forces pushing market ideologies will stop trying to upend public education and the public good it creates--and that more time will be devoted to building a consensus around what works for children. Our focus must become how to sustain and scale those practices to ensure excellence and equity for all children, regardless of ZIP code. I believe, based on my work as a teacher and as a trade unionist, that this is possible if we listen to educators, engage with community and are solution-driven. Can you imagine what we could accomplish if we could spend less time fighting disinvestment and efforts to destabilize public education, and more time, with the appropriate resources, building on what we have learned and working with parents and communities to deliver the public education our children need and deserve? That’s how we reclaim the promise of public education as the foundation of our democracy and the enabler of opportunity for all children.

Response From Shannan Brown

Shannan Brown taught for 12 years at a Title 1 elementary school in the San Juan Unified School District and, during that time, was named a California Teacher of the Year in 2011. She currently serves as the executive director of the San Juan Teachers Association:

Over the last 15-20 years in education, I have witnessed the effectiveness of our teachers’ unions’ ability to mobilize people quickly - in support of initiatives that help our students and profession, or to fend off threats to public education. This strategy has been very successful, but it has also created a culture within the union that reacts and defends rather than leads.

The absence of a proactive union culture has left the mantle of educational leadership to be claimed by people who are not practitioners, generally with less knowledge about the depth and complexity of education who tend to ignore the critical components of local school culture and context. Their initiatives occasionally yield short-term growth, but generally do nothing to create lasting improvements for students.

Moving forward, unions must claim the mantle of educational leadership. It is difficult to speculate exactly what our work should look like in 20 years, unquestionably it must include engaging and empowering our members as professionals, while creating systems that allow them to lead and sustain efforts to improve the quality of public education. The future of our work holds three important themes:

Improving and Deepening Professional Capacity:

The planning and delivering of standards-aligned instruction, based on student need and informed by on-going formative assessments is a complex process. The union’s role will be to work with their district partners to design systems that improve and deepen professional practice by strengthening a practitioner’s ability to reflect on evidence of student learning to determine next steps for growth. The system of support should also include intensive high quality assistance for practitioners that may struggle.

Strengthening Collaboration and Supporting ‘Next Practices:'

Collaboration among practitioners can have a powerful impact on student learning. The union’s future work is to ensure practitioners have sufficient job-embedded time and meaningful opportunities to learn with and from each other.

While learning from evidence-based best practices is part of quality collaboration time, attention should also be paid to ‘next practices.’ The union should highlight and share the work of the practitioners that design innovative ‘next practices’ that will become tomorrow’s ‘best practices.’ While it is challenging for local unions to connect with researchers to study these potential ‘next practices,’ state and national level unions have the resources and can support locals in establishing these connections. Unions will be part of leading improvements in education by identifying and sharing promising ‘next practices.’

Creating Feedback Loops and Empowering Voice:

Patrick Dolan, author of Restructuring our Schools, believed that ‘what is working’ gets communicated to the district office and ‘what is not working’ get shared with the union. In other words, no one wants to tell the boss when something doesn’t work. Without knowing what’s not working and understanding why, a district is not likely to create a responsive, high quality educational system for students. Practitioners are natural advocates for students and see firsthand where barriers may exist in the system for various student groups. The union needs to work with practitioners to develop ways for both practitioners and students to identify and address these barriers.

Further, some challenges students face cannot directly be addressed in a school setting, but need to be addressed nonetheless. Unions, for decades, were at the forefront of social justice efforts- desegregation of schools, ending child labor, etc. We need to re-embrace this work with renewed urgency by advocating for students, connecting with families and working with various community organizations to address the deeper issues our students face- poverty, racism, abuse, discrimination, etc.

Our members came into education because they want to make a difference in the lives of students. The future work of teachers’ unions should be driven by the vision of these professionals leading and sustaining efforts to improve our educational system. While the educational landscape will continue to evolve, surely if we listen to our members, they will tell us what our work should be.

Thanks to Brian, Nikki, David, John, Jennifer, Randi, and Shannan for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder—you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first six years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

Race & Gender Challenges

Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

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Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice For New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering The Teaching Profession

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.