When I started teaching full time, I was fresh out of the Peace Corps. I had this idealistic sense of wonder that people are, for the most part, good. I was. And, I still am.
My PC service ended mid-year so I took over some classes for a woman who not only was on pregnancy leave, but also had gall bladder surgery so I was able to extend my short-term middle school experience a few weeks. I considered myself lucky because there were no jobs available, much like today.
Shortly before the year ended and after the teacher had returned, I was doing day to day subbing. I earned a daily wage with no benefits. I covered an English class that was met in this particular school’s wood shop. At some point during the day, I was bitten by a brown recluse spider on the back of my calf. By the end of the day, the bite had swollen up softball sized.
Since I had no medical insurance, I had to tough it out until I saw telltale red streaks moving up my leg. I found a doctor who would treat me with antibiotics and maxed out a credit card to pay for it.
I returned to the school a week or so later and the staff whom I had gotten to know were shocked that I had been bitten and actually passed around an envelope to help offset my expenses. By the end of the day, $400 of my $800 bill had been collected.
I mention this, because this is teachers at their literal and figurative collective best. Even at the end of the year, teachers have always been among the most generous people I have ever known.
I got a full time job the following year at a local high school. Since I was technically new to the system as a full time employee, I had to attend a beginning teacher program. The local union sponsored it and I walked away with bags of goodies, tons of advice and a network of new friends who were starting their careers, too.
I remember one day late in the week, the sponsors locked the door and just like at church, passed the basket but this one contained union dues forms. I dutifully filled mine out and dropped it in the basket. I don’t think I realized that I was giving permission to have the hefty union dues taken directly out of my pay check. In the end, though it has been worth it and I might not have been able to pay, otherwise.
One day of the beginning teacher week, the union itself was the keynote speaker. Now, I was still an idealistic returned Peace Corps volunteer and had loved my schooling experience growing up. I did not imagine, at that point, that students could entrap teachers, let alone would actually do so. It took many years to realize that huge amounts of students do not like school, do not want to be there and do not consider teachers to be role models, mentors and people who advocate in their best interest. I still believe that most do, though.
On this particular day, the young teachers and I learned not to touch students except with a side hug, shoulder to elbow. I was shocked, and saddened, to hear union lawyers, literally telling “tales out of school” about teachers who were fired, accused of malfeasance and publically pilloried for inappropriate behavior. I thought about all the teachers I had hugged during my schooling years but I took this information to heart. To this day, I don’t touch students but they sure throw themselves at me!
My school year started without incidence. I was assigned an incredible mentor teacher who got an extra planning period and a stipend for her efforts, courtesy of the union who had bargained for that perquisite. I was well trained and shepherded into the profession, which I grew to love instantly. Despite working with some of the poorest youth in the nation, my students thrived and I learned my craft surrounded by wonderful teachers.
A second-year teacher at my school was accused of kicking a student. She brought her union rep into the principal’s meeting with her and got off without a reprimand. I heard her admit to a colleague that she actually did kick the student. I toyed with the idea of dropping my union coverage because more and more, I heard stories of teachers losing it in their classrooms but having union sharks fight for them on technicalities. The joke was that a teacher could only be fired if they literally slept with a student or handled money inappropriately.
Each year, the contract was dutifully hammered out between the union and the school board. I read about it with passive interest but, ultimately, each side ceded a little and a new contract was established in this right to work state.
The benefits I got on a local, state and national level were numerous. From discounts on hotels and car insurance to resources, workshops and certifications. My union supported my growth as a beginning teacher and overall, being part of a union was a positive experience.
The man who became my husband- a fellow teacher- and I moved across the country to a unionized state. This time, there was no choice. Union dues were automatically subtracted from our pay, whether we wanted to participate or not. The union was strident and contentious leading to a strike in 1994. Yet, I was actually supportive of the union’s proposals. A new superintendent had come in from private industry. He wanted to cut elementary art positions and have elementary PE teachers drive all over the county sharing schools. We were not striking for more money, it was for the students. They needed physical education and the arts; the budget shortfall could be found elsewhere. After a four-week delay of school start, the union and the school board negotiated a deal. I had been out on pregnancy leave (negotiated by the union) so my return date coincided with the opening of schools. We got only one week of winter break that year and extended the school year late into June. It worked out for me as I could spend time with my baby, support the union’s ethical position and make up the days with everyone else, with pay.
My husband and I moved overseas for two years. The first experience entailed private industry teaching. Were it not for me doing extensive research about how this particular country’s salary schedule works for expatriated teachers, the staff at my private school would have been denied an extra month’s mandatory retirement pay. Our next stop entailed another nefarious undertaking at a private school. Since we signed our contract overseas (via fax), the board decided to pay us in local money while the American and Canadian teachers at our school who had come through recruiting fairs were being paid in American dollars. Because my husband was bilingual and distantly related to the chair of the school’s board, he shamed them into renegotiating our contract so that it matched the other teachers who signed their contracts stateside. The next round of teachers was not as fortunate and the school saved a bundle when the local currency dropped.
We returned to the city where we met and re-entered the same school district where we started. Once again, we attended the new teacher to the district weeklong orientation despite the seven years under our belt. It paid off in spades as there was a drawing for professional baseball tickets and we won. We had front row tickets just behind the dugout for a team that went on to win the World Series that year. We were so close we could see the players sweat. On teachers’ salaries, we would never been able to afford such seats. It is still one of the highlights of my husband’s life.
Over the eleven years that we remained in the district, we benefited greatly from the union. Sure, the dues were steep but we got a break on a mortgage and earned low cost Masters degrees at a local university with the credit cost reimbursed because we kept our grades at As and Bs. We participated in a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards cadre earning our National Board Certified Teacher status and benefitted from the union-negotiated local and state bump up in salaries. When state standardized testing entered the picture, the union was dragged kicking and screaming into the testing quagmire. Battles were contentious when letter grades started being attached to schools. We lived and died each year according to those grades.
The longtime union president, by then an elderly man, got into hot water for spending union money on world travel. This information was breaking in local news media outlets around the same time as some budgetary negotiated furlough days for all teachers in lieu of a massive RIF. I stood up in a meeting and asked the union president if he factored in the many teaching couples that would take a double pay cut with furlough days. He answered back that there were single parents who were being hit harder and that at least we had two salaries. I sat down, confused by his logic. This union president ended up on trial for mail fraud and corruption. He died shortly afterwards. A colleague from my same subject area that I knew from department chair meetings eventually took over. She stepped in and redirected the ship.
I worked for a couple of years at a state virtual school with no union and pay for performance bonuses. It was more corporate and cut throat than my private school experience. The salary and benefits matched my public school package but I worked longer hours from home. There was always the overhanging fear that a person’s contract was not going to be renewed and the administration really did not have to give an employee a reason for non-renewal. Thus, as soon as a student called, I returned the call. I graded student work like a machine. I tried as hard as I could to get my numbers up and my students through. The paranoia of one’s every key stroke being counted was ever present. I loved being home for my children, being a room mom, being available for field trips and car pools. I loved the cutting edge technology and the mission of the school. However, the stress of a 24/7 environment outweighed the flextime. I missed real students and returned to the brick and mortar classroom in a new state.
This state has several professional unions and one bulldog of an organization that seems to be fighting for individual teachers’ rights but not in an organized fashion. The unions are meek and have no say in negotiation of contracts, benefits, working conditions, furloughs or professional learning.
For the first two years, I did not bother to join believing that I was beyond union needs or influence. It took more than a year for me to even realize we had a building steward. In the meantime, I re-entered public school teaching at a time with a robust salary schedule and benefits. With nineteen years under my belt, the first year back in the traditional classroom went swimmingly except for the fact that as a newcomer, my schedule was changed five times over the summer and I ended up reading 27 summer reading books. Also, new to me were required duties, which I rationalized were a decent tradeoff in exchange for more money than my previous job. Sure, I would stand by a garbage can for 22 minutes each lunch for a higher pay. The national board bonus was intact, too. I finished the year exhausted from teaching remedial students but feeling as if I had a reasonable amount of freedom in my classroom and professionalism on a school, district and state level.
The next year changed, however. For starters, I was laid off at the end of the year with no warning. Having only two years in the district made me last hired, first fired. My principal hid my job, and after district forced transfers, he called me back but that was among the most stressful six weeks of my life.
I doubted my abilities to teach, to reach students, to be a leader. I worried about my age, being over-educated and over- qualified, and looming bankruptcy if I could not find work. What is the worst is that I had asked my principal repeatedly if I would be caught in the RIF and he assure me not to worry. While other districts were revealing their RIFs, my district waited until the end so there were no job possibilities at all in the state. No union presence, no negotiation, no advocating for us. Once the RIFFed employees were determined, the school treasurer proclaimed that boxes were only for teachers who were moving classrooms not for those who were “fired.” I did not even attend the end of the year luncheon. I just packed up and went home.
The following August, I had to bring everything back and, of course, had no one help me move in. I was grateful to have a job. Any welcome back or mention of the RIF at the opening of schools meetings went unmentioned. I felt dirty. The union had a reception in the teachers’ lounge, which I happened upon while getting my mail. I asked, why didn’t they do something and finally one-on-one, I spoke to one of our building stewards. I learned that they had been involved on a local and state level. I suppose it could have been worse. I still didn’t join but I started to see evidence of a union at work at my workplace. The undercurrents of “that is a grievable offence “and “I filed a grievance” were heard in the building.
I have taught under many administrators and for the most part, they have been reasonable and competent. Not so this particular year. In addition to getting beyond the RIF and the suspicion and sense of betrayal I felt so soon after it happened, I taught a high profile subject for which the school was under tremendous pressure to raise the test scores of particular sub-groups. The school hired a former middle school administrator a few weeks into the school year to supervise my department. She butted heads with most department members but left me alone. I mentioned my angst about the RIF and it came back up in my evaluation conference.
Coming from a 100% paperless environment where I delivered my content virtually, I tend to be light years ahead of my peers for implementing technology. Yet, this administrator said I did not use enough technology on my evaluation. I rebutted with a four page single spaced document of how my students had used technology and that she, herself, had even reposted videos of my students (that I had uploaded from my iPhone in front of her) from my blog!
It was then that I joined the union because I felt that my end of the year conference would not go well and I wanted some representation if this woman was planning to sand bag me. At one point, I had an interaction with her and thought I had explained an issue for which she had emailed me. I was not surprised to see that during school she had the nerve to Tweet a snarky and rude comment to her Twitter followers. She must have forgotten that she had friended me earlier in the year. Print out of the Tweet in hand, I went to my union rep. She said, “That is a grievable offense” and that if the principal did not file a grievance to human resources, that she would on my behalf.
I went to the principal with the print out. He took one look at it and asked if I had shown it to anyone. I said, “Yes, to my union rep.” He said he would take care of it and he did. She did not come back this school year. I maintained my union membership, though.
I ended this year with confidence, the RIF firmly in the past. I also gained an appreciation and admiration of the union rep and voted, with many, for her to be our building’s teacher of the year.
When I look at the beating that unions have been taking nationwide, I only have to look back at the long history of unionized labor in American to validate their importance and their worth. It is also baffling to me how the noble profession that I chose as my life’s vocation is much maligned and disempowered. If anything, teachers should be flocking to unions to stand up for us and voice our collective voices.
Despite the failed recall, I was proud of the Wisconsin teachers who said, “Enough is enough.” They wanted their governor to work with them at the bargaining table, not arbitrarily strip them of their contractually negotiated rights. I am sure an agreement could have been reached without dictatorial mandates.
Remember, we teachers see the effects of our society first hand every day. You ask us to do more with less, we do it. You ask us to teach more kids in our classes with more serious learning issues, we take on the challenge. We accept furlough days, spend more of our own money in our classes and on our students and have more of our planning time and afternoon time taken for meetings, mandates and trainings. We show up and even volunteer. As we grow together into a digitally connected world, teachers should be finding more ways to be connected. Our various unions have moved from acrimonious strike-inducing intimidation factors, to suit and tie lobbying alongside the PACS and special interest groups on Capitol Hill. But we still need them. On a micro-level, teachers still need individual representation and on a macro-level because together teachers are one of the largest, most educated professional classes in the US.