And it comes around

I have been deliberately silent about the whole Wisconsin/collective bargaining thing, because, frankly, I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt about it.

As a public school teacher, I stand alone on several union issues, which makes it rather lonely in my corner of the world sometimes.

  • I resent being strong-armed to join the teacher union (in other words, I can pay $600/year and join, or not join and still pay $600/year).
  • I feel that as long as teachers are an organized labor entity, we will never be treated as the modern professionals most of us are.
  • I think the teacher union has come to represent an unfortunate dichotomy: it protects both good and bad teachers.

I agree with Nicolas Kristof from the Times, who said:

Look, I’m not a fan of teachers’ unions. They used their clout to gain job security more than pay, thus making the field safe for low achievers. Teaching work rules are often inflexible, benefits are generous relative to salaries, and it is difficult or impossible to dismiss teachers who are ineffective.

But none of this means that teachers are overpaid. And if governments nibble away at pensions and reduce job security, then they must pay more in wages to stay even.

Moreover, part of compensation is public esteem. When governors mock teachers as lazy, avaricious incompetents, they demean the profession and make it harder to attract the best and brightest. We should be elevating teachers, not throwing darts at them.

I had words years ago with a teacher in Florida who challenged my opinions on the fact that as long as we are affiliated with the AFL-CIO, we’re not on the same level as private sector professionals. He said, “What are you talking about? Look at the NFL and MLB unions. Are you telling me those guys aren’t highly paid professionals AND members of organized labor?” My response, while I can’t remember it verbatim, went something like, “Fine. And what happens if a player fails to perform up to standards?”

The truth is that labor unions have held sway for so long in this country, their original purpose (and it was a good one, built on solid principles) gets lost in the fog. You can’t negotiate for salary the same way for teachers as you can for, say, auto workers. The product we work with is human — therefore changeable, unpredictable and individual — not mechanical, like chassis and brakes. Personally, I say let me negotiate my own salary, based on my accomplishments and end product, like I would in a private sector job. But it can’t work like that for classroom teachers, since the government stepped in and tied their worth to a bubble sheet score on one test given on one day.

I think we should just pay teachers more at the get-go, and maybe the unions wouldn’t be so suspicious of all outside forces. I think NCLB has to go. Right out the window, right now, today. (However did any of us survive without it before?)

This just scratches the surface of the issue. You can’t change the past; the union “is what it is.” Changing the future is going to be a massive task if this thing is ever going to see a conclusion. We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Blah…I have more to say, but I’m now 20 minutes behind schedule. Gotta git.

2 thoughts on “And it comes around

  1. Rae

    Meh – what a dangerous issue, ma’am. I am pro-union whatever that means, but those unions (when I was in two) and all unions protect the useless. A baseball player still remains in his contract but may get pushed down to AA or AAA when he starts to suck. At least there he can bring himself up again. If only there were some type of incentive for teachers to do well… like, higher pay. If only there were some kind of Minor League teaching. If only there were some better way to prove the merits of music teachers other than simply “no test scores”.

    We’ve known some useless teachers in our respective times. Let’s say we end teachers unions. The very next thing we do is get rid of the useless. But… Wait a minute! This useless one claims she is useless because of the situation; her race v. the community, her sex v. the school board and upper level staff that want her gone, her sexual orientation v. whatever… her disability (a fear of children) v. her protected, constitutional rights.

    Needless to say, but I will: it is not just the unions that make people believe they have the power to get whatever they please in this world — like a 30 year stint in a school district with no safeguards against reckless teaching. No 7 year eye exam or safety check to see if that teacher is still capable of parallel teaching her way out of a paper bag. They play a big part, but the government, in their infinite wisdom, granted people the right to sue. So… every ineffective teacher is (or will be once they go to some doctor) protected by something.

    I know the unions suck. But, here’s my cynical take on pay. The unions explode and they are no more, teachers strike because of pay and they get what they want (haa — just as an example). Now, starting salary for teachers is $50,000. Do you think that is more or less incentive for useless people to get a job as a teacher? I think it’s difficult to attract competent people into the profession because of pay, but I also think that pay could attract more incompetent people… who have random diseases/syndromes/ailments protected by the state……

    ;P Ok. Yikes. Gotta stop now…

  2. Greg

    I have mixed feelings on SB5 as well. I understand what the state is “trying” to do. But as our area state representative has said, the bill won’t balance the state budget–it will only alleviate it a little. What bothers me is the merit pay issue. It hasn’t been defined very well in the bill. The human factor is still involved and if there is a supervior responsible for signing off on an individual worker’s merit increase and the supervisor has a grudge against an employee, it’s going to be very hard for that employee to achieve a raise. There are options available for the employee but it involves appeals which take time.
    A former colleague objected strongly to “agency shop fees”–a practice by which the employee elects not to join the union but pays into it for the benfits the union negotiates on behalf of all. This person voiced opinions about it to me personally (as building rep). Partly in jest, partly in fatigue I suggested that she NOT pay the fees and NOT take the salary increases or benefits and stick with state minimums. Rather than pay the shop fees, she retired before they took effect.
    Retaining poor teachers is partly the fault of administration who fail to provide more frequent evaluations and frankly, won’t do the paperwork. There was a spot on Sunday night’s “60 Minutes” program about a charter school affiliated with the New York Public School system which pays their teachers over $100,000 per year and it isn’t easy to get or retain a job. Many applications are rejected and the work week is very long–it’s like “the Olympics of the teaching profession.” Teachers are evaluated frequently during the year and some are let go at the end of the year. One teacher who was fired was happy about it–despite the large salary– the work week (60-90 hours) caused many problems in her personal life. The adage is: be careful what you ask for!


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