Teaching Opinion

Do Teachers’ Unions Truly Practice Democracy?

By Deborah Meier — December 16, 2014 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Deborah Meier writes once again to Leo E. Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute.

Dear Leo,

That we’ve managed to preserve any form of democracy is amazing given our utter lack of preparation for practicing an idea we claim we are willing to die for. It’s not getting easier—and, in fact, I’d say we’ve stretched the idea mighty thin of late.

Leo, could this be tackled upfront by our unions? The first step might be to imagine how most teachers view their own union’s democratic practice. Is the average longevity of its leaders viewed as evidence of democracy or its absence? If there were a nation with an equivalent group of permanent “in’s,” would we be suspicious? I would. And I am therefore skeptical about union democracy, too.

How many candidates are there for local reps—how honored is the position? Do most teachers view their unions much as they view other organizations—some better, some worse, but not “ours” even if they are occasionally asked to turn in a ballot?

In short: Is the union a place where we learn democracy in our gut? Know what it means to be a full member? Could unions be such places under ordinary times, even difficult times? Are our schools a place where the young can see democracy at work because the adults are visibly engaged in it? If not, why not?

Of course, given the determined drive by those with power to destroy unions altogether, it’s well to think a bit about how much worse it could be if we don’t overcome. But, in some ways, we are reaping the consequences of our past passivity about democracy. We never figured out how to organize a big union in ways that made ordinary teachers feel more powerful on their home ground. (While we over-bought the claim that the union as a whole was very powerful and could decide the fate of the world, if not the fate of your classroom.)

The practice of democracy does not come to us “naturally.” It requires a lot of practice. Even some far more “natural” habits require practice—for example, learning a language depends on experience and practice with a language. If we were raised by wolves, would we walk on four legs? Maybe not.

Democracy is not only “not natural,” but there seems a stronger and more natural pull toward a hierarchical system, with power resting in our “betters.”

We’ve got to stack the deck in favor of democratic ideals—our belief in the existence of “sisterhood” and “brotherhood,” that all are deserving of respect, to be heard, to have an effective voice. We have no “betters.” There’s just “us"—no one else—to save us.

One paragraph I wrote in the first draft of Mission Hill’s mission statement referred to respecting even ideas we abhor. We took it out. It was too controversial. Even I had trouble defending it. But it may be necessary, at school and in society, to imbed such an idea.

Surely we can’t count on the family as a model for democracy—or should we probably, although it might do much to encourage habits that will serve democracy well.

The one institution we ought to be able to count on is The Public School. Its task, after all, is to nourish the habits of heart and mind we wish to pass on to the next generation. The question is—Is democracy one of those habits? And is there any place within the school system where kids can witness democracy in practice: adults arguing with each other and with those in greater authority? See adults make public compromises, as well as stand up and refuse to do so? Where all voices are heard and where a system for making decisions, when necessary, gives everyone an equal amount of power?

If not, why not? What school meetings might they attend where they’d witness these ideas practiced in contrast with the number of experiences they witness in which teachers are given orders, and when they rightfully claim that “it wasn’t I who decided that!” Young people need to be witnesses if they are to learn about good practice. That’s true for learning a language, even though language appears to be “natural” to our species. Would we walk on all fours if raised completely by four-legged creatures even though we are natural bipeds?

Democracy may be something worth dying for—but apparently not worth making sure the next generation will be tough enough to fight for its preservation. That presumes knowledge, love, and respect for it—which cannot happen magically.

We’d have to take a hard look at current practices, interview our members with democracy in mind, and take some risky leaps that might open the door to more teacher voice, within each school, within each district, as well as state- and nation-wide. But it starts, I suspect, at home. And it’s at home that teachers practicing democracy can simultaneously impact on the civic education of young people.

The measure of success? When classroom doors are frequently open to ones’ colleagues, and time is set aside for honest conversation, because we are not afraid of each other or our bosses. That we could invite teachers to weekly or monthly schoolwide meetings and witness something like serious and difficult conversation, bounded by respected rules, and with the power to make decisions vs. the usual principal-led ones in which we all hide behind our chairs, grading papers, passing notes, giggling quietly, and just waiting for the bell to ring and release us all from this meeting of unengaged minds. They’d recognize these sessions as replicas of too many classrooms, alas, rather than as opportunities to exercise democratic power.


Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.