Changing Perspectives on Teachers’ Unions

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Simply defined, a union is a group of people coming together for a common cause. Since 1857, teachers’ unions have played major roles in shaping the working conditions for educators. In the process, not only have they led major efforts to address social justice issues, such as child labor laws and the dismantling of segregation in our nation’s schools, they have also promoted the growth of our profession with many opportunities for professional development on topics such as leadership and instructional delivery. So why are educators today choosing not to join or get involved with their local, state, and national unions?

I often hear the misconception that the main purpose of teachers’ unions is to protect bad teachers. As in any profession, there are those who are less effective—educators who do not measure up to a level of excellence our students deserve. But as an educator and a union member, I’d prefer that teachers who are negative toward and/or unsuited to their jobs not remain in the classroom. They have damaging effects on their students, their colleagues, and the profession as a whole.

I can attest that my colleagues who are also active in their teachers’ unions feel the same way. We are concerned that the union not only advocate for teachers, but also work with school districts and the broader education community to uphold standards of excellence in the profession. A pair of examples will illustrate my point.

Working Together

Like many union members, I’m a big proponent of Peer Assistance and Review, or PAR, systems like the one developed and implemented in Montgomery County school district in Maryland in partnership with the local union. PAR systems allow educators to observe, evaluate, and support one another. In order to be selected as evaluators, teachers must prove they are highly effective and go through a rigorous interview process jointly administered by the school system and the union. Evaluators are then trained and monitored by district and union representatives. Usually evaluators will meet at least once a week to consult, collaborate, and coach educators new to the school system or those who are struggling and may have been put on a provisional contract by their administrator.

The result is a more collaborative school culture, one in which teachers hold themselves and each other to high expectations. PAR allows teachers to take ownership of their profession and negate the effects of working in isolation. If someone is unable to meet clearly defined peer expectations after support from within the profession, the system provides counseling from someone outside of the profession. This is just one example of how a partnership between the school system and union can improve the quality of education for children and the working conditions for educators.

A Deeper Understanding of Unionism

Over the years, I have been active in a professional organization called the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN. This organization is composed of both National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers members who work collaboratively and learn from one another in order to improve the profession and serve as thought leaders regarding U.S. education. One of their areas of focus is helping teachers’ unions evolve from an almost exclusive focus on bread-and-butter issues to concerns more characteristic of professional organizations. Again, the trend is toward teachers’ unions promoting excellence in the profession.

Helping teacher leaders understand the three frames of unionism (industrial, professional, and social justice) is also key in TURN’s mission. Most people associate unions with the industrial frame, in which unions have historically focused on pay, seniority, benefits, and the working conditions of educators. I believe much of the union’s work still embodies this frame. However, the professionalism and social justice frames are equally important.

Professionalism focuses on the level of skills needed to excel and how one enters and grows in the profession. For example, in this frame, unions would focus on questions like who has a say in how teachers allocate their time, and the level of autonomy they are given. Teachers’ unions also play a critical social justice role, providing a strong voice for disadvantaged children. Union members advocate for such students and work to help create policies to help them overcome factors like poverty, racism, and lack of strong parental support.

“Comprehensive unionism” requires the ability to navigate all three frames simultaneously because only when utilized together can all aspects of our work be addressed. The TURN Talk: Organizing Through the Three Frames of Unionism: Industrial, Professional, and Social Justice by Pat Dolan is a helpful way to gain a deeper understanding of how all three frames are necessary to better serve our students.

Our Collective Responsibility

As a progressively minded educator, I see myself as an agent of change—and the union is the vehicle through which I can have a voice and promote that change. I understand that I am the union, and therefore I need to stay engaged, even when I might not share all the views of the national unions. The truth is, I am a better teacher because of my union. I have learned how to advocate for my students, my colleagues, and my profession through union conferences. My union has provided training on collaboration and leadership skills to support my work at the school and county levels. It has also allowed me to communicate with a national network of educators, helping me to grow personally and professionally. I am constantly learning new instructional strategies from my colleagues, and I continue to gain a wider view of the big picture in education.

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