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Education Opinion

Unions Should Cage-Bust Their Way to Better Teacher Retention

By Guest Blogger — May 01, 2013 5 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are teachers from Teach Plus. Guest blogging today is Jacob Pactor teaches AP English Literature and 9th Grade English at Speedway High School in Speedway, Indiana. He previously served as a district-level union treasurer for two years. He is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

In my first teaching job in 2005, I joined the union because I wanted to belong to something greater than my classroom. I was a building level representative and district-level treasurer within a year. I helped recruit new members and manage a $25,000 budget. It was a leadership opportunity in a profession that doesn’t really have them. After three years though, and like too many teachers around the country, I left the classroom just as I was beginning to be the most effective.

I returned to the classroom in 2010 because I missed the give-and-take with my students, but I didn’t rejoin the union. Indiana is a right-to-work state, and I was no longer convinced of what union membership provided me professionally. I’m not alone. The NEA has lost more than 100,000 members since 2010. Dues of $708--local ($20), state ($508, Indiana), national ($180)--seemed a steep price to pay for something removed from my actual classroom instruction.

Teachers unions may not directly impact teachers’ classroom practices, but they’re critical to recruit and retain better teachers. Unions need “cage-busting” solutions to increase membership, improve educational outcomes for all students, and cultivate the working conditions today’s new employees desire to stay in the classroom. From my experiences as a union leader and working in other sectors without unions, I know teachers unions can lead on this. Even if other organizations like Teach Plus exist to amplify teachers’ voices, unions negotiate contracts. It’s time they apply the ample literature on the divergent work expectations Millennials have from Boomers to recruit and retain the best teachers.

Here are three ways to do that:

1. Unions should tie their dues to salary. New teachers with lower salaries and student debt would join without financial barriers, and those in states that require union membership would feel more included and respected by the union. Unions should also create more leadership opportunities for younger members and forgive dues for new teachers who become union leaders. Unions would strengthen their standing with more members who represent a wider range of new ideas while still championing core issues.

2. Unions must be mission-driven to support student growth through effective teaching. Unions exist as necessary voices that speak for all members, and unions can ensure teacher voices are championed in evaluation models and school policies. Unions can lead and write contracts that reward teachers who garner student success, support teachers who need coaching, and help ineffective teachers create exit strategies. To recruit and retain this generation’s most promising teachers, unions must recognize that Millennial-generation teachers want their unions to promote policies that acknowledge differences in teacher effectiveness.

New teachers expect rigorous evaluations--that’s a change from many of our Baby Boomer colleagues and current union leaders, whose experiences have been seniority- not performance-based; we want to improve through feedback, and we want our school leaders to lead, not accept mediocrity.

New teachers bring this enthusiasm, but it’s raw. Most school districts fail to adequately support new teachers, whose incredible excitement and hunger for feedback often morphs into frustration and disillusionment, leading many to exit the profession. Those departures hurt students and schools. Unions can lead on this and advocate for contracts that provide structured support to new teachers as they explore their schools and classrooms. New teachers want to belong, but they won’t join unions or stay at schools that don’t create strong communities or support professional growth--the two main reasons I left.

3. Unions should help retain those teachers by fixing voluntary retirement plans (not state pensions). Until I’ve taught for 15 years in my current district, I’m not vested in a retirement plan. That structure disincentivizes teachers of my generation from staying. Teachers should vest based on classroom performance. Unions can lead on this and incentivize effective teachers to stay by linking voluntary retirement plan contributions to classroom performance. This would encourage more effective teachers to stay in the classroom longer.

Teachers evaluated as highly effective should vest immediately with a higher percentage and with the opportunity for higher matching contributions. If McDonald’s can do it with a “supersized 401(k) match” so can schools. Those matching contributions should be extended to all teachers, but at tiered levels like the union dues: for example, highly effective teachers receive a five percent match of their pay, effective teachers receive three percent, and teachers deemed ineffective lose their district’s matching opportunity until they improve.

In addition to a principal’s actions and a professional school culture, short-term rewards for effectiveness (performance pay) and long-term incentives (retirement benefits) are key factors to keeping excellent teachers in the classroom. Unions have a responsibility to improve teacher retention, and can do so by taking the lead on these issues. When they do, their memberships will increase, and they just might be rated highly effective.

Further Reading:
Teachers Have it Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers by Daniel Moulthrop, Ninive Clements Calegari, and Dave Eggers has replicable and scalable examples of how school districts from Helena, Montana to DeSoto County Mississippi implemented easy solutions to retain, recruit, and reward teachers (see video interview here).
TNTP’s “5 Ways Principals Can Keep More Irreplaceable Teachers” offers retention advice for principals.

In “Coaches Are More Effective Than Mentors,” Harry and Rosemary Wong offer seven examples of effective retention strategies.

- Jacob Pactor

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.