“How we gonna shake ’em down today, Vinnie?”
“I dunno, Mikey. I’m thinkin’ we’ll corner him in his office and demand an extra 5% cut for next year?”
“You serious, Vinnie? Them boys ain’t gonna go for that. We’ll be lucky to get 1.5!”
“Well, if we can’t get to 5%, then we’s gonna throw down on the co-pays. No co-pays for our guys and a free yearly teeth-whitening at the dentist!”
“I hear ya, Vinnie, but it’s gonna be a tough sell. I’m bringin’ my nine-iron to the Super’s office, though, and I’ll give him my Persuasive Essay in person with a rubric and standards attached!”
Sound familiar? If you’re one of the many who has bought the narrative provided by the mainstream media, then you’ve likely come to the conclusion that the real enemy to education today is the greedy, self-serving teachers’ unions who are only out to serve their leadership and their narrow constituencies. You’ve been led to believe that we don’t care about the kids and that our only loyalty is to our wallets and the legion of dues-paying members whose dissent is always quashed in the name of union solidarity.
You’ve been told (by a host of GOP governors) that the problem with budgets is government workers looking to simply maintain their modest wages, as opposed to taking bruising cuts in the name of budget austerity. You’ve further been told that if the teachers’ unions were completely cut out of the picture that tests scores would — by some fabulously groundbreaking means of neuro-osmosis — rise and student achievement would go through the roof!
I’m not here to be a union apologist. For those who myopically believe teachers’ unions are what’s wrong with education, I have felt a strong need to stop the continuance of a message that is horribly misinformed, stunningly simple, and frighteningly vicious. No, I will not attempt to sway your opinion here. What I will do is give you a look inside our union. As a member of the Executive Board of the Red Clay Education Association, I’ve never held my tongue from criticizing things I feel unions are doing wrong. Like any other organization or corporation, yes, we do have our faults. And having been involved in the work of other organizations and corporations, I can say without hesitation that my teacher’s union is one place where dissent and healthy argument are expected and desired, unlike a corporate board, whose only allegiance is to its shareholders.
So what do we do at our meetings? Discuss ways to extort pay raises from the school board? Share the long-distance pass codes so we can make phone calls to our exchange-student cousins in Europe? Share ways we can get through the end of the day by giving kids worksheets so we can play solitaire on our computer? Talk about how we like to screw with the principal’s ink toner budget by leaving the photo-copier tops up when copying? If you’re one of the many consumers of that mainstream news, then you probably believe that’s what we do, although to a less sarcastic extent.
In our meetings, though, we find that we’re going through pretty much the same thing that the others schools in our District go through. We discuss the bureaucratic challenges teachers are faced with on a day-to-day basis; it isn’t enough that we manage the task of planning and executing lessons for our students, but we’re often left with an absurd amount of paperwork to be completed at the request of either the feds, the state, the district, or some combination of all! We discuss the frustrations with our students (not by name, of course) as we find out we’re in constant competition for their attention against the television, video games, and the barrage of other multi-media that kids find more fascinating these days than a simple book! For many of us, we discuss the woefully inadequate system of special education that seems to be getting worse as the feds and locals continue to redefine special education as well as those who teach this ever-evolving subject and group of students.
Then there are the times we do have to fight. And, yes, we can fight. If we feel we’re not being given the appropriate tools to work on our students’ behalf, then we fight. If we feel we’re being jerked around by posturing and preening politicians who’d rather use unions as a punching bag as opposed to advancing a serious dialogue, then we fight. We’re probably tilting at windmills by engaging those commentators and politicians who attack us so, but unions have long been a punching bag by some who simply don’t understand what we do. And probably never will. Honest and fair criticism is to be expected, but this new breed of outright nastiness is just cruel and unusual.
Does the teachers’ union need to do a better job of communicating its message? Perhaps. But as long as those who seek to distort the work we do continue to slander us to fit the pre-arranged narrative of some programming director, then we’ll continue to confront those battles head-on.