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Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

This post is just one of many being published today as part of the #EDUSolidarity project, of which I am an organizer. After you have read this, please take some time to read the wide variety of posts that will be added during the day at EDUSolidarity.us.


Right around the time I was elected as my school’s UFT Chapter Leader, my school hired a new principal.  He had taught history for 12 years and is married to an English teacher. He had spent the preceding year at my school as a principal intern, during which I came to know and respect him as a person and educator. When we sat down for our first formal meeting as principal and chapter leader-elects, the first thing he said was, “Steve, you’re a great teacher. So why would you want to be chapter leader?”

I have heard this question too many times.  It assumes the stereotype of the teachers union as home to the despondent, bitter, lazy, kid-haters who teach to get summers off. And I must admit, I was guilty of holding this prejudice to some degree when I became chapter leader.  While I, of course, wanted to take on the role to ensure the fair treatment of teachers at my school, a large part of my motivation was to slowly work to gain a voice within the UFT, so that a good teacher like me could displace an old and bitter one, in the hope that others would follow.  However, what I have discovered in my interactions with people within the UFT and at the various meetings I attend is exactly what is true of teachers I have met in my career: The overwhelming majority of people who step foot into a classroom want nothing more than to do right by their kids.

Now, there is certainly disagreement on how to do this. I know people who are great, award-winning teachers who have radically different pedagogical styles than I do. They might even do some things that I would counsel the teachers I mentor against doing. But different teaching styles are necessary, as they reach different students.  I would never want every teacher in the world to be exactly like me.

The same is true when it comes to educational policy. I only agree with the educational policies of the UFT slightly more often than I agree with the policies of the New York City Department of Education. I wouldn’t trust either to run schools without the checks and balances the other provides. There are times when change is a good thing, and sometimes that needs to be enforced from on high. There are also times when these “new ideas” are ridiculous and need to be stopped. There is a need for meaningful accountability for teachers. There are also times when the system acts out of expediency rather than in the best interest of students, and the union needs to be there to speak up for our students.

The area that the union is almost always right about, though, is insisting that teachers be treated as professionals. This means ensuring that we are compensated in such a way that allows one to teach, support a family, and retire. This means having meaningful, objective criteria for evaluation and layoffs that is not based on poorly constructed tests. And due to the nature of the job, this means we need tenure protection from arbitrary dismissal.

I work with a great teacher who nearly lost his job last year because students stole a copy of a grade-wide exam off his desk. I know someone in Virginia, where I started my career, who was falsely accused of sexual harassment by a student after she did poorly on an exam. I have seen teachers assigned classes for which they are neither certified nor trained to teach. I had parents calling for my dismissal my first year because I asked their children to write persuasive essays representing the opposite point of view on an issue they cared about.  Great teachers are so hard to produce and find that we need a system that ensures we never arbitrarily lose them.

More than anything, however, I need the protection of my union and my tenured due process rights to consistently improve and innovate as a teacher. I am a very good teacher right now by any measurable objective standard, including that of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards who certified me two years ago, as well as by the subjective account of anyone who has ever observed me.  On my best days, I am great and every year, there are more and more of these days.

But here’s why I need tenure to get better: I need to be able to try new things to better improve my students’ learning.  If I did the same thing this year that I did last year, my students’ growth would stagnate.  This means taking risks.

New things do not always go well; most of the new things I try work, but some don’t.  By being able to try new things, over time, I am constantly improving in my ability to serve my students, bringing me ever closer to the sustained greatness to which I aim.

If I had to worry about arbitrary dismissal as an “at-will” employee, I would not have tried many of the great things I do.  I would continue doing what I have always done because it is safe. I have written before that good teaching takes courage.  This is certainly the case, but seeking to improve as a teacher should never mean risking one’s job, which is exactly what I would be doing if I were still an at-will employee as I was in the right-to-work state of Virginia.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.