In connection with a nationwide call for teachers to blog about why we support union involvement, and as a show of support for teachers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and, well, everywhere, I'd like to explain why I, as a teacher, support - and belong to - my local union.
1. I like due process.
I like the idea that, if I am actually granted tenure, then I have a fair amount of security in my job. Not security from being held accountable, because everyone should be held accountable for their performance, but security from an administrator deciding they don't like me, and firing me based on personal prejudices. If I suck at my job, fire me. Really. Personal feelings, however, should not be a deciding factor.
2. I like having "people."
I'm not rich. I doubt that any recently-minted teacher is. So, should I happen to get sued by a parent because I've managed to piss their kiddo - or them - off, I would likely have to defend myself in court because I couldn't afford a lawyer. Since I'm part of the union, this is not necessarily so. I view my union membership dues, in part, as my own personal "legal defense fund." I don't ever plan on anything happening that would require me to seek out legal counsel, but one can never tell in this litigious society. As my mom always said, "Better safe than sorry."
3. I like being supported - especially when I have a problem that needs fixing.
Maybe it's part of being a Language Arts teacher, but I believe that everyone has a story to tell. Problem is, especially in literature, if you don't have a good "publisher," your story might be doomed to loiter on a Goodwill book shelf forever. The situation is somewhat the same with my union membership. If something happened and I had a story, i.e. I received a formal evaluation that had another teacher's name in it, or my initial yearly evaluation looked exactly the same as another teacher's with the exception of our names because my evaluator only changed names rather than typing a new evaluation for each teacher (yes, this really happened), then the union supports me in telling my story, rather than leaving me to be the lone voice crying out from the "bookshelf." Without union support, and without the other teacher corroborating my story, it would have been like it never happened. However, such a thing happening just isn't right and should be addressed without leaving me to fear that I will be fired as a result of speaking out and asking for an authentic evaluation that was actually for me. If I don't know where to improve, then I can't.
4. I like having a say in my professional life.
Last year, we got to give input on our collective bargaining agreement. That's right - we all got to be a part of the decision process - something that sounds remotely like an election, but in our case, every vote does count. Initially, because of overall budget cuts, we faced a percentage cut of our salary, plus becoming frozen on the pay scale. As the bargaining process continued, the building reps and bargaining team informed the teachers (yes, even non-union ones, because the bargaining team fights for their salary and benefits too) what was going on at every step of the way. In the end, we ended up being able to move a "step" on the salary schedule, and we did not have to take a pay cut. Before this was finally decided, though, all of the union members were able to cast their vote on whether or not we accepted their final bargaining decision. Granted, we couldn't really say no, but the point is I got to personally sign my name saying that I agreed to what they'd decided, and I could have decided not to sign. That counts for something, right, having at least a tiny bit of control over what happens in one's career?
5. I like knowing that the system works.
Apart from my issue with my evaluation, I've never had to call on the union for any active support. However, I have seen other people exercise their democratic right to due process:
Last year, a good first-year teacher was non-renewed, and the building principal gave no reason why when he informed the teacher - to this day we still don't know the reason. Well, the teacher was more than a little upset. He'd received decent evaluations, and hadn't felt like anyone in particular was "after" him. One way or another - and not through his doing - the students found out that he'd not been asked back for the 2010-2011 school year. The kids liked the teacher, and were more than a tad bit pissed. They took action, posting fliers which said things like "Save Bueller" (not his real name) all over the wing in which he taught. Administrators - one in particular, really - would go through and tear down the signs. The kids would put them right back up. They staged a sit-in. They demanded to speak to the principal - a request to which the principal finally acquiesced, though the Superintendent sat next to him during the student interviews. Bueller taught Social Studies. The whole process was a lovely bit of irony, and I walked over to their wing just to bear witness to the kids' protest.
Well, the teacher decided that, given the fight the kids were staging, the fact that he hadn't been told directly by his evaluator that he was doing a poor job, and the fact that he loved being their teacher, he owed it to them to go in front of the school board and contest his non-renewal, an opportunity we would all have should the opportunity arise. Based on the advice of a school board member friendly with our local union representatives, he went before the school board, and read a letter he'd written explaining the situation and his feelings about it. As a result of his action, and the fact that the school board agreed with him and thought that it wasn't fair to get rid of competent first-year teachers without reason, especially without giving them the opportunity to improve, all of last year's non-renewals were overturned. Bueller was back, along with several other first- and second-year teachers. Unfortunately I wasn't able to be present at the meeting, but I was kept abreast of the progress via text message.
I would like to close by saying that I don't in any way expect the union to protect me should I do something ridiculous. I'm honest enough with myself to own my behavior, and to admit if I've done something idiotic or I just suck as a teacher (I reflect constantly on what I can do better; believe me, teachers have to). However, I like the idea that I do have some protection from personal attacks, or personal retaliation from administrators, and that is something everyone should have.
For more posts like mine, see this page.