By Mary Cathryn Ricker
I was intrigued by Jay Mathews’ Washington Post column that proclaims “Teachers leaning in favor of reforms.” I do appreciate that he points out he has never once written about unions hindering reform, even if he back-hands the compliment with “that is not the same as saying the unions have worked hard to make all teachers more successful in the classroom.”
That is where I part very good company with him.
I appreciate the parsing of teacher’s feelings toward current education hot topics in the research he sites by Teach Plus and Education Sector. As the current president of my teacher’s union in St. Paul, Minnesota it is helpful to learn what teachers are saying and thinking both, individually and locally, and in the aggregate.
However, I have a fairly unique view, as a teacher serving as a local union president and a third generation teacher in my family, which leads me to a couple questions and a couple points I would like to make about teachers “leaning in favor of reforms.”
Supporting Education Reform
Because this research is a snapshot in time, it is impossible to say whether these attitudes captured by Teach Plus and Education Sector are new or not. In my family and in the historic local teacher’s union I have the privilege of serving, these attitudes are not new.
Someday we will have longitudinal research that either proves this group of newer teachers is somehow unique, or it will prove what I have experienced anecdotally: that teachers, and our unions, have always had a bias for improving teaching and learning conditions. Indeed, it was because I saw up close these examples of acting within a union to improve teaching and learning that I ran for president of my union, rather than get an administrative credential or take some other job, when I felt ready to lead with new ideas of mine and my colleagues’.
My Dad, Union President and Reformer
I saw my dad, and his generation, fight for adequate preparation time so I could build on that by advocating for increased professional learning time. His generation built salary schedules that honored years of expertise and graduate specialties so that we could come along and create leadership opportunities that don’t force a teacher to choose between leading or teaching.
The work done by teachers in their unions before me to recognize National Board Certification paved the way for others to design other differentiated pay structures. We can entertain a serious discussion about the AFT’s bar exam idea precisely because of the professional ideas to improve teaching and learning brought to the table year after year by many leaders who have come before us raising the bar for teacher standards over time from high school diploma to some college to a full credential. There wouldn’t be this notion of rethinking tenure, or due process, if there hadn’t been progress from capricious, political, sexist at-will status to fair due process in the first place.
Examples of Union-Supported Reforms
In the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers we have been doing things like:
- Designing our own alternative licensure program to diversify our profession and fill hard-to-staff license areas
- Expanding the professional development opportunities we started offering more than 25 years ago
- Expanding our parent/teacher home visit project
- Negotiating contract language to strengthen our peer assistance and review program and evaluation
- Offering alternatives to seniority to protect the integrity of programs we offer our students.
We’re doing all of that with our ultimate goal of making our contract the most powerful document our district has to attract, support and retain a high-quality, diverse workforce that knows how to meet the needs of our students and families.
None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the teacher union leadership that came before us. None of it.
I appreciate the acknowledgement that Jay Mathews was trying to offer, but I caution him about painting the last 150+ years of St. Paul teachers (and others) as stagnant, versus a recently discovered fountain of youthful teachers suddenly leaning toward reform. The teaching profession has been evolving since it started. Each generation has added something, built on the work of the generation before.
Teachers have always leaned toward reform except, of course, for those times when we’ve been leading it.