Teaching Profession

The Paradoxical Teacher

By Ann Bradley — September 15, 1999 4 min read
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In a world that likes to pigeonhole people, Albert Shanker was a paradox. He was one of the fathers of collective bargaining for teachers, but also one of the strongest voices for teacher professionalism.

He was a fierce defender of public education, but at the same time, one of its most clear-eyed critics.

He was a lifetime crusader for civil rights, but led a bitter strike in New York City that provoked charges of racism.

He was the president of the American Federation of Teachers, but quick to admit that some teachers couldn’t measure up.

He represented a solidly Democratic organization, but had the ear of business leaders and policymakers of all political stripes.

He was worldly, but also shy and ill at ease with small talk.

Yet, one trait remained constant throughout his life: Shanker was always a teacher.

His weekly “Where We Stand” column, which ran as a paid advertisement in The New York Times (and later Education Week), covered a vast array of topics dear to his heart. Shanker wrote about affirmative action, Andrei Sakharov, Nicaragua, vouchers and tax credits, accountability, discipline, and the need for higher standards for American schools.

In each column--and in his numerous, and famously lengthy, speeches--Shanker used a common-sensical, explanatory tone. The same approach was evident in his participation in crafting the influential 1986 report A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century.

The report argued for creating a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, for restructuring schools to allow teachers to make more instructional decisions, and for creating “lead teachers” to help their colleagues uphold high standards, among other changes.

But the notion of differentiating among teachers didn’t sit well with Mary Hatwood Futrell, then the president of the larger National Education Association and a member, along with Shanker, of the task force that issued the report. In a footnote, she argued that such an arrangement would send the message that “some teachers are more equal than others.”

In rebuttal, Shanker wrote a brief statement supporting the recommendations. In characteristic teacherly fashion, he pointed out that not everyone gets his way.

“When teachers criticize part of a contract I have helped negotiate,” Shanker wrote, “I tell them that I could have written a better one myself. But that’s not what negotiations or task force reports are about.”

The exchange illustrated the two national unions’ opposing views on issues of teacher professionalism, a gap that would narrow to a sliver by the end of the 1990s.

Humble Beginnings

Albert Shanker, born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1928, was the son of working-class, Russian-immigrant Jews. He attended Stuyvesant High School and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before going on to do doctoral work in philosophy at Columbia University.

Out of money to finish his dissertation, Shanker began teaching mathematics in the New York City schools in 1952. He joined the Teachers Guild, one of more than 100 associations in the city speaking for teachers.

Shanker worked with other young trade unionists to build the guild, arguing that unionism and professionalism could go hand in hand. The organization staged a strike in 1960. A year later, under its president, Charles Cogan, the guild won bargaining rights as the United Federation of Teachers, speaking for all the city’s 45,000 teachers.

In 1968, as the union’s second president, Shanker led a series of strikes over a decision by the governing board of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district in Brooklyn to fire 13 white teachers and six administrators. The largely African-American district was experimenting with “community control,” seen by black activists and the sponsoring Ford Foundation as a way to improve urban schools.

As a unionist, Shanker demanded that the teachers be given due process instead of being fired. He was jailed for 15 days for defying a court order to end the strike--and was branded a racist in the protest.

In a 1980 interview, Shanker explained that he would not be cowed by prevailing liberal sentiment. “It was just as wrong for a group of black extremists to fire white teachers without due process,” he said, “as it was for white extremists to fire black teachers without due process.”

Throughout his career, Shanker adhered to the same principles. In 1974, he became the president of the New York union’s national parent, the American Federation of Teachers. He built the AFT’s membership to nearly 1 million, partly by organizing paraprofessionals and workers in noneducational fields such as city government and health care.

When the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk ushered in the current era of education reform, Shanker embraced the conclusions of the national commission that found American schools in severe trouble. Until his death of cancer on Feb. 22, 1997, he worked to help improve public education, vigorously throwing the AFT’s weight behind national standards and testing.

Shanker told his members why he had done so at the union’s 1983 convention. Organizations mired in petty interests, he warned, would be “swept away” in times of great turmoil. But those willing to participate, compromise, and talk would not be.

“They will shape the direction of all the reforms and changes that are about to be made,” Shanker said. “That is what we in the AFT intend to do.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 1999 edition of Education Week as The Paradoxical Teacher


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