Public School teacher unions are a popular target for school reformers aiming to prove the flaws of public education. A fair question is whether the existence of a strong union inhibits positive change. In a word, no. At least not usually.
To begin, I must disclose that I am a member of the union. I must also share that I am frequently at odds with my union’s philosophy. In my union, and in the state teacher union, the underlying message seems to be that “we won’t do anything unless we get paid for it.” While this attitude seems detestable to some, allow me to explain. Teachers face higher burnout rates than most any other profession, and it is largely due to a continual shift and increase in duties and responsibilities. For example, 15 years ago when I began teaching, I needed to be at one IEP meeting every month or so. Now, I usually have 3-4 per week. Theses sorts of things creep up on a teacher, leaving them fewer and fewer minutes to actually plan and grade in school. I think it is fair to ask that when adding responsibilities that employees are compensated. Trouble is, now the unions sometimes assume any change is going to add work, and should therefore be opposed. Many of the changes in technology and instruction replace current methods, not add to them, and should be embraced. My union brethren, however, still see change as an assault on their free time and their work time.
That said, I would also say that I have never met another teacher who opposed creative new approaches to instruction. Ok, very few. In fact, many unions nationwide are actively pushing for current technology, teaching freedom, and paid collaboration time in order to create positive change. unions are comprised of people with an active and genuine desire to serve students well. Any resistance to change initiatives is usually met with one of two objections:
- The teachers collectively see this change as flawed, damaging, or ill-planned, and are standing together to oppose an initiative which may not be in the best interests of students. This is commonly viewed instead as resistance to any change at all.
- The teachers collectively see this change as valuable, welcome, or important, but do not feel they can or should take on the added responsibility and the additional labor required to do it correctly without compensation or reduction of other responsibilities. Can you imagine a union opposing a new evaluation system if they were no longer required to keep an online gradebook? The problem comes with teachers who already feel full up on responsibility who are asked to do more.
The best path all around is for unions to work closely with curriculum and technology integration specialists to design creative change that does not add responsibility, but rather reforms it in ways that enrich both teaching and learning. Sensible plans earn union support, and everyone wins.