Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why must educators be professionally, politically organized?

"Union" is a bad, bad word here, unless we're talking about Union County and its county seat, Union, so named because abolitionist Quakers met with regional clergymen at the old Union Church. Governor Nikki Haley picked her new Secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, Catherine Templeton, precisely because she had "taken on unions," presumably while training under industrial titan Roger Milliken in Spartanburg. Templeton's law-firm biography lists "union avoidance" as a specialty.

But it was hard not to laugh at Nancy Flanagan's blog post in yesterday's Education Week online edition, and her perspective on South Carolina's comic fear of unionism. (What's not comic but importantly historic is South Carolina's violent and self-defeating reaction to people wanting to organize themselves in defense of their dignity, their economic freedom and their civil rights, as in the cases of the Honea Path Massacre of 1934 and the closing of the Darlington Manufacturing Company in 1956. Google away.) Flanagan warns you, it's a true story from 1993.

It's 1993, and the United States Department of Education is hosting the first of a series of eight National Teacher Forums (a wonderful initiative that disappeared when the Bush administration moved in). As Michigan Teacher of the Year, I am in D.C. representing my state, watching a presentation by four South Carolina state Teachers of the Year on how to create a statewide teacher forum. Three of the four SC TOYs--all earnest, articulate women--are wearing pink suits.

The SC teachers describe the essentials of creating a state forum: Secure outside funding from a business that supports education. Invite honored district TOYs to a day-long event with "business trappings"-- a hotel meeting room, meals and mileage provided, professional attire required. End up with an advocacy product--a pamphlet, white paper or videotape. This, evidently, was the formula for how to get the voices of the most accomplished teachers to the proverbial table, to "dialogue with key leaders and policy-makers" about educational issues.

I am sitting next to the Wisconsin Teacher of the Year. I murmur, "Wonder what their union thinks about the Teacher Forum?" So he asks the presenters.

The pink-suit teachers look at each other, shrugging. "The Association, you mean? I think some of our Forum teachers actually do belong to the association. You know, to get the insurance." But none of the presenters did. Their husbands already had insurance plans.

My take-away from this experience: Some teachers work in a parallel universe, where access to control over their own work and well-being is determined through winning over a succession of principals--a dicey business. If they're deemed outstanding instructors, they get to put on a pink suit and meet in a hotel once a year to "develop leadership" and "provide a voice" on the critical issues that shape their daily practice.

This model of teacher-as-compliant-servant (probably wearing high heels) resonates in the business community, where a malleable, dependable, economical workforce is always desirable. And if their husbands' employment provides benefits, so much the better. Convenient and cost-effective.

This is not the path to building a genuinely professional cadre of highly skilled teachers, however--or to invest in the creative human capital that we need to retrofit our aging approach to public education in America. Teachers need an active, ongoing presence in policy creation. Not a token "seat at the table" where their voice can be co-opted, but real influence over what matters most: classroom teaching.

Flanagan is sweet not to name the ladies who represented the rest of us at this event in Washington.

But she slices us to the quick on the rest, doesn't she? We educators are taught that organizing is ugly -- especially when unions are involved -- and dirty, and its results are such that we can't begin to calculate, so why don't we just stick to doing what we're told? And we do, so many of us, do just that: We fear and obey our principals, who fear and obey their superintendents, who fear and obey their school board members, who fear and obey the loudest and wealthiest parents, who fear and obey their children, who fear and obey hardly anyone. Many of our colleagues have adopted a ga-ga attitude: go along, get along.

Sadly, what that means is that far too many of our really great colleagues, particularly when issues like pay-for-test-scores are being discussed at the State House -- and NOT being discussed at the schoolhouse -- keep their heads down, keep quiet, avoid the spotlight, color inside the lines, make no waves, question no decisions, and hope to get through the next semester/year/two years or more without incident, and maybe make it all the way to retirement eligibility safely and then get out. Does this sound familiar to you?

In her post, Flanagan doesn't say whether or not she has faced similar circumstances in her own education career. She does say this:

If I don't speak up, I have only myself to blame.

Occasionally, I will hear teachers lament that labor tactics--demanding, marching, picketing, adversarial relationships with the public education hierarchy--are "unprofessional." Better we should meet over a chef salad and have a nice, civilized conversation. Perhaps the union label should be replaced by "guild" as we strive for more professional credibility. And so on.

I'm thinking that the Wisconsin Experience--the union politely conceding all the economic bargaining chips, and still getting shafted in a naked, thoroughly undemocratic, demoralizing power grab--might serve as lesson to those who believe that activist teachers are unprofessional. We organize, because without such allied strength, we have even less control over difficult work for which we must accept accountability.

There's more to her post, so read the full text here.

If you're feeling especially subversive today, forward the link to this post to your colleagues. Or print it and post it on the bulletin board in your staff workroom. Or send me a quick note describing the state of affairs where you work. The opposite of suffering in silence is speaking up.

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