Rethinking Teachers’ Unions: The Guild of Extraordinary Educators

Chris HeadshotThere is nothing sexy or glamorous about any part of the education sector. The logos and branding of school districts, state offices, union locals – even schools themselves – are tired, in acceptance that they are going to perpetually live at least 15 years in the past. Even the most modern buildings and classrooms can’t seem to fully escape the frumpish legacy of education. Traditional public school districts and their attendant unions, with few exceptions, resist modernization like an elephant straining to stay in its cage. The unions are unequivocally the most arcane of the structures, grounded deeply in industrialization and powered by struggle. As we continue to move ever deeper into a knowledge economy and away from industrialization, trading seniority and uniformity for competency and innovation, the stakes of the unions’ great tents are being pulled up, its masters scrambling to keep them fast to the ground.

Teaching is a profession that prepares young people for success in life and, increasingly, a place in a workplace that demands that we prepare our students differently than they have ever been prepared before. We have clearly emerged from an industrial era where order, accrual of content knowledge, and seniority form the structure of schools modeled in the industrial workplace. Now, perhaps more than ever, K-12 teaching is an art, replete with more tools and strategies than we have ever known. Increasingly, teachers are moving away from what had become standard methods of professional development and toward learning guided by innovative or master peers.

MOVING TOWARDS A NEW MODEL OF TEACHING AND UNIONS

Many teachers would accordingly prefer a move away from the industrial model of unionism that has become predominant and toward a more professional model of unionism that values individual contributions, an acknowledgement that there is a connection between teaching and learning, and that the work of individual and small groups of teachers can produce breakthrough results with students.

The teaching profession is one that our parents told us is among the most noble of professions, but cautioned us to never enter. We know that this is a profession that we can and should be proud of, that we should defend. We lament the teacher across the hall who gives little or no effort not only because the students suffer for that, but that it reinforces the view of teachers that we must reject if we want our profession to live up to our students’ potential. As teachers, we must protect our profession against some of those among us.

Therefore, I propose that we reject the current model of unions; as the keeper of the standard of our profession, their model ceased serving many of us. We must face the reality that we are not all the same, that we don’t all have the same beliefs and aspirations for ourselves or our students, that we should not all be organized together and regarded as a monolith. Instead, a faction must break off, determined to be the standard bearer of the teaching profession that we all aspire to be a part of when we embark. Membership in this organization would be selective and maintained only if members continued to meet a predetermined, high standard of pedagogy and professional conduct. Being a member of this organization would be a badge of distinction, allowing members access to a network of proven educators of distinction. Eventually, membership would prove to be grounds for differential pay, preferred hiring conditions and other aspirational privileges sufficient to inspire increasing numbers of teachers to elevate their craft.

To create a formal organization like I have just described is a long road, to be sure, but not impossible. It starts with us.

(c) Chris Eide

Chris Wide serves as the National Director of State Policy, Advocacy, and Partnerships Teach Plus, a national teacher voice organization. Prior to Teach Plus, Chris worked as the Executive Director of Teachers United, a teacher voice organization based in Washington state, which played critical roles in passing initiatives at the district and state level on issues such as early learning, student perception surveys, teacher evaluations, and charter schools.

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