I would like to present a look inside the teaching core that we have in Seattle, with a spotlight on a different breed of teacher that exists in schools. I would also like to take a look inside our teachers' union, its structure, the narrative that dictates its actions, and how that different breed of teacher is beginning to demand a different breed of labor leader.
Let's start with a look at the union movement and the teaching profession. “After the post office,” former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said, “schools are the most unionized activity in America.” But it wasn’t always that way. Our two largest teacher unions are the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The NEA was until the 1960s in majority populated by school administrators, not teachers. The founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, felt that teachers didn’t belong in organized labor, in part because they were too educated. The image of a union worker was blue collar and gruff — not polished like teachers.
Franklin Roosevelt, himself a champion of labor unions and collective bargaining, asserted that unionizing teachers was a bad idea. “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service…. The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people,” FDR declared.
However, in the 1950s, big private-sector union wins led to factory worker salaries outpacing teacher salaries. Combined with the fact that many teachers were subjected to shoveling snow or punching time clocks and stories of female teachers being sent home at the first sign of being pregnant, the situation was ripe for organized action. The United Federation of Teachers in New York City, under the leadership of Albert Shanker, went on strike, demanding collective bargaining rights, and they got it. From that point on, everything changed.
Prior to 1960, just before collective bargaining in public education, union membership had been slowly moving toward 750,000 teachers nationally. Now, that number is upwards of 4 million. Teaching had begun to identify with the labor movement.
But that labor mentality never fully took hold, even among union leadership. Albert Shanker himself in his later years became perhaps the nation’s most prominent education reformer. The father of collective bargaining in public schools and president of the American Federation of Teachers later broke far and wide from his membership, proposing the idea for charter schools, merit pay, and rigorous peer-review procedures. As someone who believed in the mission of educating our most disadvantaged students well, he imagined a new kind of teacher that needed to be protected. He foresaw a “second revolution.”
To be sure, many people still identify teaching with labor. One Seattle Public Schools Board Director recently objected to Teach For America (TFA) teachers applying for positions in Seattle on the grounds that “there are still a lot of qualified teachers out there on their couches without jobs.” That is a labor mentality.
A contrasting mentality is focused on the mission of closing the achievement gap. This is a departure from a compliant, credential-based model of teacher in favor of a justice-minded, outcomes-based one. In order to uphold such democratic values as equality, these teachers see their role as not to simply stand, deliver, and collect a paycheck; it is to take responsibility for every student and make sure that they succeed.
This represents a shift in mindset: when you take responsibility for every student and their success, you have to act.
This kind of teacher is frustrated by a system that holds them back, by peers who lack their urgency in solving the problem or who make excuses for why the problem can’t be solved. Our unions many times do just this, and fewer teachers identify with their unions as they currently operate. They appreciate the protections that the union provides against capricious acts. But few, if any of these reform-minded teachers are clinging to due process of dismissal rights.
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