How in touch are our unions?
I am not anti-union. I want to make that clear before I say anything else. I certainly don't feel like I'm overpaid, but I know that I would be getting paid a lot less, and my life would be a lot less comfortable if there were no such things as unions. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder how in touch our teachers' unions are with teachers.
I was reminded of that when I checked out NYC Educator's blog next week. The post dealt with an article in Village Voice about Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers.
This is what the Village Voice said about the experience that this teachers' union president actually has as a teacher:
[Barton claimed] she "taught, sometimes full time, sometimes part time, at Clara Barton High School for six years." Actually, records reviewed by the Voice indicate that she taught 122 days as a per diem teacher from September 1991 through June 1994, roughly one in four days. She then did what she told the Voice was her only full-time term in the fall semester of 1994, followed by 33 days as a per diem teacher in the spring of 1995.
Strangely, while she told the Voice she was a per diem for the 1995-96 and 1996-97 school years, her records list her as a full-time teacher. Because she was credited with the required two years of full-time service she doesn't even claim she performed, she was given a permanent certificate in September 1996. She has been on union leave since 1997, accumulating a total of nine years of pensionable city time though she only did one semester of full-time teaching.
I have no idea what the statistics are on this, but I wonder how extensive the actual teaching experience is of all the leaders of of our teachers' unions and how recent that experience is. I believe this matters.
After all, I know how I am. I've found that even when I get away from teaching for a couple of months, I start to forget. There have been times when I've gotten a "great idea" for an activity or adding something to my curriculum in August, and then when I go to implement it, I suddenly realize that there is something about the actual classroom situation that I had forgotten to take into consideration. My "great idea" either fails miserably or has to be altered considerably.
The point is that as soon as you stop being in the classroom regularly, you lose touch, and so the things that are important to actual classroom teachers might not be the things that are important to our union leaders. Two issues come to mind on this. First of all, seniority and tenure. Our unions have historically fought tooth and nail to protect those, and while I think most teachers support them, I've found that it is by no means unanimous. Many young teachers certainly aren't big on it, since they end up being the ones who get cut during tough financial times regardless of how good a job they do. Some of those young teachers have parents who are still teaching, so they now feel much more personally the unfairness of that, and many good teachers, regardless of their age, don't see tenure and seniority as being important to them. I must admit, however, that there are also good teachers who do strongly believe in tenure and seniority. In any case, I think it's fair to say that tenure and seniority is a much higher priority to the leaders of our unions than it is to teachers as a whole.
On the other hand, I've talked to very few teachers who haven't agreed that we need more ability to remove certain kids from our classrooms. Ask them if this would improve education, and the answer will be something like, "Well, duh!" But our unions have done virtually nothing about that. I'd guess that if I wasn't in the classroom anymore, maybe I wouldn't care about that either.
I believe that most teachers really do want to see their schools improve, but there are very few people outside of teaching who see our unions as being a positive force in public education. In fact, a number of books and articles have been written by people who insist that teachers' unions are what's wrong with it. Perhaps if our unions would get more in touch with what teachers really want, that could be turned around.