Three years later, I started taking education courses and began a career as a teacher. I don’t understand all the ins and outs of education policy, but I have a lot more insight into the things the community expects teachers to do and why a union is needed to protect a group that takes a lot of crap from a lot of people.
– In my first year as a full-time teacher, I was called on the carpet along with five colleagues and told to “write up” an explanation of why I had failed to notice or supervise an alleged epidemic of inappropriate touching and sexual harrassment perpetrated by three or four different 7th grade students. Don’t save the document, we were told; just bring it down to the principal and she will edit it and then save it for her records. Because I did not have professional status, the union could not represent me in this matter.
– In addition to generating lesson plans, grading papers and keeping up with required professional development activities, we are asked to supervise students in the halls, walk them to the cafeteria at lunchtime; incorporate this year’s “sure fire” study skills techniques in our lessons, follow the new pacing guide that dictates content and timing for curriculum, set annual goals for ourselves (copies are sent to central administration); serve on committees such as the school council, spend a period every day meeting with colleagues (whether or not there is a reason to meet), organize special activities (a Medieval Fair for 8th graders at my school), participate in a book group; prepare our rooms for emergency lock-down or evacuation of the building, customize strategies for failing students, brainstorm and implement formative assessment techniques, analyze (MCAS) data and teach in ways that addresses weak spots in the data, provide small-group instruction within each class, master new software, maintain a website; coordinate with special ed, court-appointed guardians, interventionist teachers, coaches and disciplinary specialists (in Pittsfield, we have a Juvenile Resource Center where we send individualized lesson plans for students who are sent out for temporary disciplinary action). Some of us even make time to mentor new teachers.
– I have had direct or indirect advice on school practices that have said major projects should be assigned, only to be told that we should not assign projects that require homework because many students have no support at home to ensure that homework gets done. I am supposed to set rigorous standards, but to reteach and adapt lessons for students who don’t get the concept. I am supposed to deduct 10% from each grade for every day an assignment is late, but no student should get a grade below 50 (or 61, depending who you talk to).
– I still don’t have professional status (tenure) so I better not get launched on what it can be like to interact with an irate parent. I can tell you that colleagues have been in meetings where the parent says, “I’m at my wits’ end. Tell me what I should be doing.” Does it seem right that the parent should be asking the teachers for advice on raising a child? I was in a meeting with one parent who I believe wanted me humiliated but not fired. In front of her son, she admitted that he cheated on an assignment and laughingly said that she advised him in the future to get the answers from someone who had done the assignment correctly. When I asked students one day to write a paragraph on the topic of which of their chores they would most like to have someone else take over, only two students in the class said they were expected to do chores at home.
– Students sit on desks, try to sleep, comb their hair in class, use underarm deodorant in class, get up to sharpen pencils 5-10-15 times during the period, pass notes, talk without let-up, and engage in other disruptions. Some have told me that they have Wii in their bedroom so they don’t get much sleep; others are out wandering around late at night “throwing snowballs at drunk guys’ houses” (a direct quote). A couple of ADHD kids have told me that they don’t take their medication because they don’t like it. I had one student (not this year) who came in with a hand-shaped bruise on his neck.
Sorry. I meant to get to the point earlier.
The op-ed in the Globe today was the last straw for me. Joe Williams wrote:
During his campaign, Governor Deval Patrick courted and received strong support from teachers’ unions, which have vigorously opposed reforms and are especially hostile to charters.
The Denver-based news group that publishes a daily in this region laid out an editorial scolding earlier this week:
Private sector employees are already dealing with the burden of higher health care costs. Public sector employees, including teachers, must do the same.
I’ve come a long way in my understanding of the daily life of a teacher. This may come as a surprise to people, but most teachers don’t seem to put much thought into union activity. I assume it’s because they’re too busy. When we do think about it, we wish that the union would address our own little concern (as a new teacher, I would like better tuition reimbursement for required courses; a senior colleague said she would like more help getting professional development credits – something that doesn’t even register on my own priority list). I believe our union is prioritizing protections for retirees this year.
When we need them, the union seems to be available. In the election for a new union President this year, most people seemed to vote for the guy they knew well. Whether he would be a pitbull in negotiations didn’t seem to be a factor. I am an exception in my level of political activity, but most teachers I know don’t seem very engaged in political organizing. The union begged us to sign up for a coffee that one union rep offered to host at her home, and the event was cancelled due to lack of interest. Most days, we don’t think about the union or politics at all. The union is not particularly integral to our self image as educators.
Yet the union is what the media and the teacher-bashers focus on. Before I gave teaching a try, I was guilty of it, too, to some extent. What I have found is that there happen to be a lot of teachers. Therefore the teachers’ union helps to organize a big block. I also strongly believe that this was traditionally a woman’s profession and salaries were low. When women started having more options in the workplace, teacher salaries went up in order to attract smart professionals. The community has a hard time acknowledging that they got a bargain in teacher salaries for many, many decades.
Like the faceless Imperial Storm Troopers who get blown away in the movies, it is easier to demonize teachers if we refer to them as an evil horde instead of as human beings who are highly qualified professionals, care about kids and volunteer for duty on the front lines every day. Why is it o.k. to demonize teachers’ unions?