Teaching Profession Opinion

Unions & democracy

By Deborah Meier — March 16, 2007 2 min read
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Dear Diane,

Perhaps it’s time to change the subject. Moving on does not mean we both won’t have another “last word” to get in on Reading First and literacy. (It’s hard for me to resist just one or two more rejoinders.) Also the disagreement re what international tests do and don’t tell us—as well as testing itself—we can pass over for the moment, but must get back to. But your comments about “mandates” suggest a place to take off in another direction, even before we get to the “Tough Choices, Tough Times” report as you suggest in your last post.

While none of us like to be told what to do, we begrudgingly accept the need for rules and mandates. But each of them need to be treated with care and caution because they are always pressed on us under the claims of crisis and emergency; and once approved they rarely are reconsidered. Every bad experience leads to a new rule, and none lead to removing them.

For every mandate there is a trade-off; an unintended consequence. When we’re talking about something as fragile as the “minds” of our youngsters and the future of a democratic “mindset” we need to be wary. I’m getting to sound like the critics from the libertarian right at times! Yes, even the idea of mandatory schooling should occasionally be revisited—and reaffirmed.

Unionism is an issue that resonates back to my early childhood when they were just beginning to be a serious force. John Dewey, whose name you and I refer to re educational issues, was a staunch founder and defender of teacher’s unions. He was my family’s hero however for his defense of democracy—I barely knew about him as an educator. His reasons, like ours, probably related both to the need for a counterpart to the power of corporations as well as to his and our thoughts about how schooling relates to democracy.

There has historically been something paternalistic about how adults as well as children are treated in our public schools. Teachers (mostly women) have for more than a century been seen as, at best, dedicated public servants with a love of children, but with limited intellectual power. When I visited St Louis to get married in the early 50s I discovered that women had just won the right to marry and remain teachers. From Day One when I started working in Chicago schools I was struck by the downright condescending tone taken toward teachers and parents (both mostly women). I was over 30, but I had never felt as humiliated.

I thanked my forebears who had built the Chicago AFT local and allowed me to remember that “their” whims did not rule my life. The rules protected me, allowed me to “talk back to power.” The task of preparing kids for a democratic society, I believed then as now, required kids to keep company with strong-minded, feisty, and collaborative adults. Nothing we “taught” was more important than how they witnessed the ways in which adulthood was conducted. The dilemma was that too many teachers entered the field still seeing themselves as not quite fullgrown adults. Unions gave them a chance, not always taken, to grow up.


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