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On unions and the future of the teaching profession

I’m no blame-the-unions pundit. After all, management—not unions—have imposed many of the rules that stifle creative (heck, even just sensible) practices in schools.

But here’s the plain truth: it’s time for unions to innovate.

In a thoughtful essay Marc Tucker penned last week, he makes the powerful case – like many others have as well — that policymakers will not support a professional model of teaching until teachers’ unions jettison the blue-collar model of organizing. (Other good reads on this topic include “Urban Teacher Unions Face Their Future” by Bruce Cooper and Marie-Elena Liotta; United Mind Workers by Chuck Kerchner, Julie Koppich, and Joseph Weeres; and Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice, edited by by Bob Peterson and Michael Charney.)

Tucker notes that a professional model of teaching requires a new way of recruiting and paying teachers and determining who leads or not. Unions have a critical role to play in this transition. We have looked on time and time again as policymakers, without leadership from teachers and their unions, have mucked up teaching reforms.

Abandoning the “defensive crouch” to become professional guilds

In TEACHING 2030, which I wrote with 12 expert teachers, we observed the sound reasons for unions to organize as they have in the past, ensuring that teachers can “earn a decent middle-class living, work under reasonable conditions, and not be hired or fired on the basis of administrative whims.” But I wholeheartedly agree with Tucker’s assessment: it is time for teachers’ unions to get out of the “defensive crouch.”

Tucker writes about the need for unions to hold themselves accountable for high-quality teaching—championing high standards for the profession. Agreed.

And I would take this analysis one step further. As we suggested in TEACHING 2030, unions must morph into 21st-century professional guilds whose missions include ensuring the right working conditions but also:

  • helping teachers spread their expertise to each other;
  • identifying and rewarding classroom excellence; and
  • certifying members who are ready to lead policy and pedagogical reforms.

Just imagine it: unions operating as professional guilds that broker contractual opportunities for teachers (and, yes, teacherpreneurs) to teach and to transform schools through leadership in districts, state education agencies, and/or nonprofits.

Reasons to ignore the naysayers

Some school reformers would refer to this idea of unions as professional guilds as “wishful thinking”—but I wonder. Is it wishful thinking… or do reformers lack trust in teachers to lead and hold themselves accountable for student outcomes? Is it wishful thinking… or do reformers fear that inconvenient truths about their economically or politically expedient agendas will surface if those who teach kids every day are making more of the decisions?

Three emerging trends suggest the public’s readiness for a new vision of unions’ roles.  

First, the vast majority of the American people have trust and confidence in today’s teachers, and these public sentiments will soon trump bought-off media and policy pundits who have made a living bashing teachers. Second, more parents and teachers are joining forces to promote saner policies, particularly regarding student testing and accountability. Finally, there’s increasing awareness of how teachers’ unions in top-performing nations are serving as partners in reform, with visible benefits for students.

Promising signs of union transformation

Yes, there are many internal obstacles that the NEA must address to evolve from blue-collar union into 21st-century professional guild. 

But the NEA is already shifting some gears, investing a recent dues increase ($3 per member) in school reform and teacher leadership. A few months ago, the NEA announced a partnership with CTQ and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to develop and mobilize teacher leaders. The Teacher Leaders Initiative (TLI), now in its infancy, is working with 140 classroom experts to pilot a teacher-designed leadership curriculum in CTQ’s virtual community, the Collaboratory.

We are already witnessing how these NEA members are developing their leadership chops in TLI, preparing to design and lead reforms related to the Common Core, teaching evaluation, and school redesign. This fall, they will launch independent leadership projects in their districts and states as another 300 teachers join their ranks. By 2016, over 1000 teachers will be cultivated for a bold brand of leadership from the classroom.

If pundits are nervous now about the impact of practicing teachers on the profession, they’d best buckle their seatbelts. The increasing visibility of teacher leaders will drive the kind of political will necessary for teaching to become a full profession.

10 Comments

Rubie Moore commented on April 2, 2014 at 12:06pm:

I agree. I am a member of AFT

I agree. I am a member of AFT. Currently the president of my local AFT union and I are collaborating to create an organization (Teachers As Advocates) that will promote disseminating information for parents  to promote academic success by truly understanding what information they should know/understand to best assist their children. We are also hoping to educate parents about vital laws and political policies that are for open debate and assist them in understanding the significance of it all. Wish us luck! We are attempting to be true change agents!

Cheryl Suliteanu commented on April 3, 2014 at 1:25am:

teamwork

Rubie, thank you for doing the work you're doing! Your goal to

"promote disseminating information for parents  to promote academic success by truly understanding what information they should know/understand to best assist their children"

is one I believe to be an absolutely essential element of improving our students' ability to succeed.  I would appreciate learning more about your work, and about how you are creating your organization.

Have you heard of the Family and Community Engagement Network?  Just next week, educators, families, advocates, and policy makers will be convening in Cincinnati for the first National FCE Conference.  One topic that connects to your goal is:

Parent Leadership and Advocacy for School Improvement: Parent leadership enables families to take on a variety of roles for systems change from community organizing to advocacy to facilitating learning. As parent leadership is harnessed, families are able to enhance the quality of education in their community. To see conference highlights, click here.

As Barnett's vision of teachers' unions transforms into a professional guild for teachers, I'd like to see parents' engagement transform as well.  Parents need to be knowledgeable about how they can collaborate with teachers on a deeper level, at their schools, in their district, and in their states.  We need to nurture parents so they feel comfortable and confident enought to take an active role in advocating for their children side-by-side with teachers. It's time to let go of the adversarial positions that policy-makers, teachers, unions, the community, and our students have had imposed on us, and move toward a team approach.

Rubie Moore commented on April 7, 2014 at 3:34pm:

WOW...oh and THANKS! :)

Cheryl, thank you for the info regarding Family and Community Engagement Network! Currently, our advocacy group is utilizing the AFT building to meet/ work with additional community groups. One project that we are currently spear heading is.."Your voice counts- VOTE!" We are attempting to register community members and educate them about policies/laws that are relevant as well as those that they might view as irrelevant . It is essential that citizens understand all laws. We are also encouraging parental involvement through snipets placed on one of our local radio stations entitled, "A Quick Tip From a Teacher!" We are attempting to be change agents. It is not easy but necessary for the betterment of our communities.

Rubie Moore commented on April 7, 2014 at 3:34pm:

WOW...oh and THANKS! :)

Cheryl, thank you for the info regarding Family and Community Engagement Network! Currently, our advocacy group is utilizing the AFT building to meet/ work with additional community groups. One project that we are currently spear heading is.."Your voice counts- VOTE!" We are attempting to register community members and educate them about policies/laws that are relevant as well as those that they might view as irrelevant . It is essential that citizens understand all laws. We are also encouraging parental involvement through snipets placed on one of our local radio stations entitled, "A Quick Tip From a Teacher!" We are attempting to be change agents. It is not easy but necessary for the betterment of our communities.

Barnett Berry Barnett Berry commented on April 2, 2014 at 11:10pm:

Helping parents help the profession

Teachers help parents but rarely are unions seen as the backbone of that support. Make sure Rube parents know it is the union of professionals who are there for their kids. These parents can be a huge ally for teachers as they - not policy wonks - define their profession. 

Cheryl Suliteanu commented on April 3, 2014 at 1:39am:

things that make you go "hmmmm..."

As a born and bred California union advocate (in support of Cesar Chavez, and the UFW, I didn't eat grapes til I was in college!), I have been active in my local and state union since I became a teacher.  I would love to see the vision of a professional guild become a reality, and consider myself already engaged in some of the cogs turning that wheel...

That being said, the phrase "identifying and rewarding classroom excellence" gives me pause.  I am trying to think of how to translate this into a more palatable, more substantive picture for the "naysayers" you mention.  Throwing out the idea of merit pay to a crowd of stressed teachers who are panicked about being judged by test scores... let's just say that doesn't sound like a good plan to me! 

So... will our TLI cohorts be bringing information out to their local associations about how to implement the transformations you suggest? How will their leadership projects support transforming "wishful thinking" into innovative solutions that are replicable and sustainable? 

Barnett Berry Barnett Berry commented on April 3, 2014 at 7:14am:

Can unions redefine merit pay? They can & must!

Cheryl. Totally understand and get the point of stressed teachers, some who have lived thru so many failed merit pay plans.  Our nations policymakers have tried and failed to institute them since the 1920s.  But I did not use the term merit pay, which conjures up superficial efforts to reward or punish teachers on the basis of some narrow test score metric or trite bservational checklist of behaviors. Professional guilds do distinguish btw  their members and are all about veterans supporting novices and the initiatiated. Their senior members, who have been identified as experts, are expected to help all guild members improve their craft.  When the public sees unions operating as such their embrace of the individual teacher (72% of public trusts individual teachers) will translate into political support for teachers as a collective.  My TOC suggests The public will expects its elected officials to invest in, not bash, teachers. 

Precious Crabtree commented on April 7, 2014 at 9:37am:

Changing the dynamics from within...

For the last 10 years I have attended most of the NEA Conventions, and I have begun to see a shift in our leadership’s thinking. Unfortunately, the majority of our members are not there yet and it is quite frustrating.  Debate on the floor around teacher evaluation and common core is heated and the votes have been close!  I have heard members argue that we are selling out to our current administration in the White House and I have heard members express fear that if we don’t fight back, then things could get worse.  Change is hard, but we need to be the union that leads our profession instead of being the union that says no to everything because it is hard or we lack the creativity to change the conversation.

 I agree, wholeheartedly, that this change not only needed but inevitable if we are to save the NEA.  Over the years, we have experienced a deep cut in membership.  The slow but steady bleed of members, I believe, is because new teachers entering the profession do not see value in our organization. It makes me sad as I know the long history of my association and am quite proud.  However, we have been unable to redefine ourselves as needed this past decade.

We must become a professional guild that is innovative and progressive.  We have a long rich history but lately, what have we accomplished? We have been in reactive mode instead creative mode.  We need to imagine where we want to go, set sail, and hold on tight as it will be a bumpy ride.   Those of us who like minded need to organize ourselves so our voice is heard at convention. Difficult conversations need to take place and the unions need to serve members in new ways like the Bar Association serves attorneys.  We need to embrace what we do well- professional and leadership development- and strengthen our delivery.  We need to sit at the table with new ideas and lead the conversations instead of being asked how we feel once something is already implemented.

One place that I have found this type of thinking and leadership is through the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN.  There is a national group as well as regional satellites. I am always inspired by the discussions that take place and the action that teachers and union members are leading! It has helped me to be a better leader in my local and not afraid to try new things. We need more folks to be engaged in this kind of thinking and work.

Anne Jolly commented on April 8, 2014 at 6:43pm:

Thanks for the reminder!

Thanks for this post, Barnett. Asking unions to remake themselves and jettison the blue collar approach is such a restatement of the obvious that it's amazing you still must remind them of this. I want to be proud of my union, but there's little to crow about with regard to its involving teachers as leaders in a real way in decision-making. Policy decisions are all at the "top" with "top" being defined as the few people who hold the reigns of power.

Thanks for inviting unions into the 21st century.

Rod commented on April 9, 2014 at 8:10pm:

Not buying it

Teachers have been attacked, had wages cut and have seen pensions shaved. My brother is a teacher in a state that has lost the ability to bargain over working conditions and no longer has tenure. The result is a loss of planning time and having more responsibility for less pay.

The idea that any labor/management relationship is not adversarial is foolish to buy into. A union has a responsibility to get the best wages and benefits for the dues paying members, not to sell out to corporate reformers who want to base job security on standardized tests.

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