Education Opinion

The Union Label

By Nancy Flanagan — April 30, 2010 2 min read
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I hate writing blogs about the unions.

There’s the obvious fish-in-barrel comparison, to begin with--it’s easy to whip up a snarky, razor-sharp critique about pathetically bad teachers who follow the buses out of the parking lot, keep the ditto machine alive and entertain lunch colleagues with stories of the good old picketing days. But the truth about teacher unions is far more complex.

Unions are sometimes the only bulwark between ill-advised policy and the little-understood complexities of good teaching practice. Unions unabashedly insist that teachers’ skills and contributions are worth a great deal to society--and should be remunerated in kind. They do serve a purpose. Most of the hackneyed clichés about the evils of teacher unionism are muted by comparing academic outcomes and programs in strong-union states and right-to-work states. A non-union workforce may be more compliant, but they’re not necessarily more professional.

What drives me crazy is all the things that unions could do--or do better-- but don’t. Teacher unions don’t promote genuine leadership and innovation in curriculum and instruction--unless it comes with a title or salary bump. Unions have not taken control of continuous professional learning and improvement for their members. Unions have not used technology tools effectively to build cross-state, cross-discipline learning communities. And unions have not encouraged teacher members to develop their own unique and powerful voices to inform policy and change.

I’d love to see the NEA version of “The English Companion,” a teacher-created virtual staff lounge in heaven, for English teachers, filled with killer lesson plans, great literature suggestions, research synopses and robust professional conversation.

Instead, the NEA sends its members “Works4Me,” a weekly newsletter of the “best tips culled from readers, a vehicle for instructional staff to share their ideas with other instructional staff.”

Samples of your NEA dues dollars at work:

I use my sandy nail files to clean the erasers on the pencils I keep for students to use during their standardized tests. I save lots of pencils this way and students turn in better electronic answer sheets." "At the end of the school year, have this year's kids write letters to next year's kids. Give them suggestions on topics to include such as behaviors to avoid so they don't get in trouble or make the teacher mad, some great treats to look forward to that are annual events and what cool projects the new students can expect. It's great practice on letter writing skills for your current kids as well." "I have a chant that we do before we take a test, to relax my students. It's a little silly, but the kids do ask for it if I forget: We're going to take a test [clap, clap] We're going to do our best [clap, clap] We'll do the ones we know and we'll try on the rest [clap, clap]." "My class planted bulbs in little peat pots and covered them with plastic wrap until they sprouted shoots and roots. We are so often tempted to skip these fun projects while striving to cover the curriculum. One of my first graders made the extra time and money I spent on it worthwhile when he hugged his newly sprouted bulbs and exclaimed, 'This is the BEST day of my LIFE!' " "We have a pep assembly a couple of days before standardized testing starts. Two teachers pretend they are cheerleaders and shake pompoms as they give a 'pep' talk about doing a good job on the tests, getting a good night's rest, etc. We have three teachers sit in desks and pretend to be examples of how not to take the test. One keeps turning around and bothering his neighbor, one cries, and one is not paying attention to directions. Breakfast is provided for students, teachers and classroom helpers on testing mornings. We also borrow an archway from the local hardware store and put Christmas lights on it with a sign that says, 'Entering Testing Zone'. The lights are on whenever we are testing."

So--what’s wrong with these homespun suggestions? Don’t we want first graders to plant bulbs in little peat pots? Sure we do--in fact, there’s a nice little science lesson embedded in that activity. At least I hope that was a science lesson. Week after week, academic content and instructional ideas take a back seat to great treats, fun projects and not getting in trouble.

I also find the test-prep chants and rallies--not to mention the Christmas-light Testing Zone marquee--a more than a little schizophrenic. If we’re besieged by endless, low-level testing, and railing against inappropriate use of test results, why would teachers be enthusiastically highlighting them as a special part of the school year?

As a teaching professional, this stuff doesn’t work 4 me.
[Clap, clap.]

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.