The majority of the people involved in education are students.  To our detriment, sometimes we experiment on these students and they are temporary participants in our trials.  As we search for a silver bullet the cost is often at the learning of individual students; these students pass through our classrooms only once.  This is  not an ideal group to experiment upon.

The second largest group of participants in education is teachers.  Teachers either flirt with the profession and may teach as few as five years, or if they put any investment of time into the profession they are likely to spend 30 years in the classroom.  This seems a logical group to experiment with when compared to students.  They are willing participants, have some level of education themselves, and whether the experiment is successful or a failure a teacher should gain some knowledge from it.

The experiment should not only include incentives for doing their job better in a quantitative sense.  This will dull the intrinsic drive (ala Daniel Pink), mis-reward some, while reinforcing the failures of the most vulnerable .  Incentives will not reach the teacher as an artist who weaves the standards into an experience for the students.  There needs to be some other reward, some other incentive that allows teachers to do their job better, but without the erroneous penalties of not meeting some testing measure.

I have had the privilege of teaching in the states of Florida, Michigan, and Georgia.  This has afforded me the opportunity to compare and contrast what works and does not work in a classroom from multiple points-of-view.  No one place has it all in place, but some places have more of what works than others.

Unions are an old reform movement that has some lessons to inform our current reform movement.  Despite the clamour that teacher’s unions are the cause of ineffective teachers in the classroom, I can speak to what they did for me:

  • My time was respected.  Since administrators had to pay me more if my co-teacher was not there for our class or bring in another teacher and pay him/her I had fewer times that I taught a co-taught class without my regular co-teacher.
  • During my planning time I had content/grade level meetings.  However, I also planned.  On my planning time.  Revolutionary.  I was not asked to cover another class and finish my units, lessons, or grading/feedback at home on my own time.  I was paid to plan, and I did it better when I did it at school, on the clock.  Protected planning.
  • There were fewer after school, non-paid functions I was required to attend.  That made it more meaningful when I did attend one.  Teachers were also more creative in using parents time wisely; moving to student-led conferences, combining curriculum and open house nights, recognizing quality over quantity.

I think unions force employers to not try and “get their money’s worth” in time, but in the quality of the interactions.  Non-union states seem to demonstrate their power over teachers time as evidence of the return on paycheck they are getting. 

What type of teachers does that attract?

Two of the states I have worked in have had to open employment up to non-educators during teacher shortages.  Non-educators are missing key pedagogical fundamentals that they will never be able to do much more than teach the way they were taught.  There is no room for change in that situation.

Do unions equal educational success? No. But they offer educators something that is simply denied them in many non-union states. There is a basic level of autonomy for teachers due to the presence of a union.  Autonomy enables  a teacher to not be overwhelmed with outside demands from outside the classroom; how many of those 5 years and out teachers might have stayed if they could have better coped with the outside the classroom issues?  Autonomy can be the catalyst to propel a dry lesson to an exciting experience.  Ask any teacher what stands in the way of making a lesson more engaging? Time.  If teacher had protected planning, a tighter structure to guide the use of their presence, more respect of what they do well – you could get better teaching.

If there is a correlation between teacher autonomy and teacher’s unions those opposed to unions should offer more teacher autonomy and remove the need for unions.  Be the lead learner and take what has been learned and include it in the next lesson.  Find the compromise of these two questions: What do teachers like about unions?  What can districts afford to give their teachers?  Teachers may not be in it just for the pay, offer them time and see what transpires.