During the 28 years that I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I participated in three strikes. No one who hasn’t taught can understand how truly conflicted teachers are about striking. Despite what many commentators have opined, teachers feel guilty about abandoning their students and going on the picket line. That’s because they never chose teaching in search of fame, fortune or power. They did so because they believed that they could make a small difference in the lives of young people. I realize that’s a platitude, but it cannot be denied. So when teachers go out on strike, they are forced to admit that they are to some degree hypocrites.
What allows them to live with themselves is their recognition that improving schools can only take place when they take action. Before teachers unions came into being, school officials reigned supreme. As Albert Shanker wrote, collective bargaining really amounted to collective begging. Teachers could present the most compelling arguments for change, but without the threat of a strike, they received cavalier treatment. It is the memory of that bygone era that continues to convince teachers to participate in a strike. I know it was the single factor that made me a believer. Yet I still remember how unprepared I was for the first strike and how unbearable each day was.
In Chicago, teachers are taking a stand because they have had enough. They oppose an evaluation system that rates them to a large degree on standardized test scores, which have been found to be unreliable and unstable indicators of instructional effectiveness. Critics have countered that such strategies are “increasingly popular across the country and are unlikely to be rolled back, no matter how long the union stays out” (“Chicago Teachers’ Folly,” The New York Times, Sept. 12). I think the union realizes that it is fighting the inevitable and, therefore, the strike will be brief.
As for the charge that teachers care only about themselves or else they wouldn’t strike, I ask why teachers are being portrayed as mercenaries. Every profession seeks better working conditions and better pay. If teachers could achieve those goals the way other professions do, they would. But they work in a system that is distinctly different. Court rulings, state education codes and board of education policies limit their ability to enact change. As a result, frustration and anger slowly build. That’s what’s on display in Chicago. Appealing to teachers’ “dedication” to students won’t work anymore. Teachers have heard that too often.
I realize that students are caught in the middle of the struggle, but in the long run I think they will benefit when teachers are treated as equal partners in the reform movement. I say that because in the final analysis, teachers know best what they need in order to do their job more effectively. Demonizing teachers unions, which represent them, will only set back efforts to improve education.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.