In her recent article in The Atlantic, Using the Restroom: A Privilege—If You’re A Teacher, Alia Wong seems obsessed with one problem for teachers—particularly for elementary school teachers: There is little time in a school day for a teacher to have a few moments of solitude or get a cup of coffee or use the restroom. These problems were more serious back in the days before teachers’ unions grew their membership and their protections for teachers’ needs and rights.
I know something about this because my mother was an elementary school teacher. When we moved to Havre, Montana in 1960 in the middle of January, my mother immediately took a job to fill a mid-year opening. It was the rule back then in Havre that teachers took the children outside twice every day for recess unless the temperature dipped lower than 15 degrees below zero. My mother’s first purchases in that town were a much warmer coat and boots with thicker pile lining. Teachers’ unions have brought teachers some relief—lunchroom aides and recess supervisors in many places—so that teachers have a few relatively short breaks during the school day.Personally I think that is a good thing.
I am always puzzled by what has become a dominant belief—that teachers have it easy. In a recent commentary, Jeff Bryant describes what we hear all the time: “that teachers have ‘cushy’ jobs with short workdays and summers off. This attitude has become so run-of-the-mill that we actually have a political candidate running for president in the Republican Party—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—who openly chastises teachers for being ‘part time workers’ who get ‘full time pay.'” I remember how hard my mother worked to keep her full time job in perspective as she fulfilled her other responsibilities in our family, and I also remember my friend Chelli’s mother—a truly dedicated elementary school teacher, whose crawl-space garage attic was so packed with lesson plans and projects from years of teaching that it took my friend months to empty it out after her mother died. The materials in that garage attic reflected a history of generations of our community’s children.
Jeff Bryant documents the impact of the persistent trashing of teachers by the media and politicians, along with the impact of sanctions-based school reform and funding problems, on the pipeline of school teachers willing to do this hard work of managing and nurturing groups of children year after year: “Many states are currently experiencing steep drops in enrollments for teacher preparation programs. As Education Week recently reported, ‘Massive changes to the profession, coupled with budget woes, appear to be shaking the image of teaching as a stable, engaging career. Nationwide, enrollments in university teacher-preparation programs have fallen by about 10 percent from 2004-2012.'” The No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002, and more recent programs from the Obama administration that emphasize rating and ranking of teachers by their students’ standardized test scores have fed teacher blaming. While these test-and-punish policies have not significantly invested in improving schools, they have made firing teachers one of the punishments for schools in the poorest communities where it is difficult to raise test scores quickly.
Although these days teachers’ unions are routinely vilified by politicians and the media, it is in a very recent article from a leader of one of the biggest teachers’ unions, that we find the most complex and nuanced picture of the challenges for teachers and the role of a local union affiliate in trying to improve the schools on behalf of children. Mary Cathryn Ricker, formerly the president of the St. Paul (Minnesota) Federation of Teachers and now executive vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers, describes her union local’s years-long effort to counter what she experienced as the dominant view of teachers’ unions: “On a local TV station’s evening news show, a Minnesota Republican state senator, Richard Day, had even declared, ‘We all know Minneapolis and St. Paul schools suck.'” Ricker led a local teachers union that, “crafted A New Narrative for Teachers, Educators, and Public Education, which became our guiding document. Our narrative was anchored by five key themes: we are committed to building a good society; we believe in honoring the value of and cultivating each student’s potential; we believe that working in community is essential to student success; and we believe that educating students is a craft that requires talented and committed professionals. We are committed to working collectively as a powerful force for justice, change, and democracy.”
Ricker’s union set out to engage parents and the community around realizing these goals—ultimately by opening up contract negotiation meetings to the community, who became increasingly engaged by the issues that matter to parents: “In 2011, we went into contract negotiations with a more developed plan to democratize the process. We encouraged anyone involved with the education of St. Paul children to attend. We managed to schedule negotiations on the same evening every week—Thursdays from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.—to help fit it into busy lives. The first session attracted just eight people, but the audience grew steadily after that. By the end of the nine-month-long process, nearly a hundred union members, parents, and others from the St. Paul community were showing up….” In 2012, the union formed study groups that included parents and members of the community, a process that led up to the expiration of the contract in 2013: “In April 2013, the study groups presented their contract ideas to our union’s executive board. The priorities included: educating the whole child, authentic family engagement, smaller and more predictable class sizes, more teaching and less testing, culturally relevant education, high quality professional development for teachers and education assistants, and a significant increase in access to our preschool program. After a thoughtful discussion, we adopted their priorities and directed the union’s bargaining teams to negotiate on that basis.”
The school district balked, however: “In Minnesota, matters not directly related to a teacher’s wages, benefits, or working conditions are permissive, not mandatory subjects of bargaining.” The district also demanded that the negotiations go into mediation, a closed-door process that shut out the public. The union, however, had engaged the community so deeply in the process that the community ultimately joined with teachers to demand the kind of reforms the community had said were needed by the children. And the union threatened to strike. “In the end, we averted the strike and made progress on nearly every issue for which we had fought. We won a commitment to expand the preschool program and to hire additional nurses, counselors, librarians, and social workers. We won an agreement for reasonable and predictable class sizes and a reduction of standardized testing.”
Ricker describes how the teachers’ union working with the community was successfully able in St. Paul to counter what Jeff Bryant calls the “cult of economic efficiency” that threatens not only the well being of school teachers but also the future of the institution of public education in America: “So what’s going on here? For sure, those who say teachers have a cushy job—including blowhard pols like Christie—are to be ignored. But like what so often happens in the current education debate, contentious arguments get mired in detail while much bigger issues are allowed to lurk in the background unaddressed. Those much bigger, unaddressed issues affecting teachers’ work environments are the current love affair with economic efficiency and the cognitive dissonance among believers in the education ‘reform’ movement that although teachers are the ‘single most significant’ determiner of students academic outcomes, we need to make their jobs harder and less secure… For instance, lawmakers continue to pass budgets and push policy ideas that increase class sizes or fail to reduce them where class sizes are too large… (Y)ou can always find an economist, usually working for a conservative think tank, who argues that class size matters little to student test scores… Another favorite of the efficiency cult is to tie teacher pay to student test scores, either through performance pay scales or an evaluation process… Research also shows teachers’ evaluations based on student test scores continue to be mostly inaccurate, unreliable, and subject to too many variables.”
While teachers’ unions have helped teachers like those described by Wong in The Atlantic who need a break once in a while during the day to meet their basic needs, Mary Cathryn Ricker demonstrates how the teachers’ union in St. Paul, Minnesota accomplished so much more. With strong leadership and a democratic process that listened to members and worked with the community, the union brought its institutional power behind an effort to confront “the cult of efficiency” that Bryant decries and to insist that the public schools better serve the myriad needs of the students.