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A Career Without A Union

When I was finishing up my Master’s degree at the University of Connecticut, oh-so-many years ago, I had decided to make a list. It was a list of all of the things I did not want to be as an educator. The general idea was that if at any point in my career, I felt or thought enough of these things, it meant that my younger self would want me to retire from the profession. After 13 years, I still have this list, and check it periodically. In some respects, I think I was a bit ambitious in my assumption that the career would be so consistently blissful, but overall, I’ve done well.

By the time I had finished my degrees, however, I felt quite disillusioned with the American public education system. I started by work by finding a small uncredited “at-risk youth” school, and joining Americorps so I could work there out in the deserts of California. Finishing my tour there, I nearly dropped out of education altogether before finding a small environmental leadership charter school back in Connecticut that seemed to align with my values. They made me an offer, and I eagerly took it.

Being both small and a charter school, they did not have a union.  And at the time, this was a selling point. I thought about my list, and felt like a good educator should always have the ax looming over their head. I said to myself, “If I’m not doing my job, I don’t want to be protected in any way. I want to be fired.” And the truth is, for many such schools doing absolutely phenomenal work with kids, they simply couldn’t function without the tenacity and flexibility not having a formal union can allow. The tragedy here is not lost on me.

And so, I was worked to the bone. Meetings ran long, contracts were adjusted, pay was frozen and cut, curriculum was written and rewritten, after school programming and committees went unpaid, and the volunteering was an unspoken assumption of the job. My work days were persistently chaotic, with no real security, and an endlessly ravenous system. I could give it my all, yet it was never enough. And I loved it. I was in my early 20s, could work well into the night and still be somewhat conscious in the morning. I could sacrifice every weekend, because this, in my mind, was truly “giving back”.

The freedom, too, was refreshing. There were so few limitations on what I could do. If I wanted to start a new after school program, I could start it tomorrow. If I wanted to completely rewrite my curriculum, I didn’t even have to ask. When we had a problem to solve, our staff meetings would run well into the night. When we needed to put in more hours to tackle a school-wide issue, we could adjust our schedules immediately to solve it. There was a flexibility there that seemed to be very responsive to the needs of our students, and a sense of humanity there, where we were all in it together. We were a scrappy little school that was willing to do more to serve our students. Sustainability never once crossed my mind.

After almost 15 years under this system, however, I am feeling the fatigue. In that elusive personal life we teachers attempt to maintain, I have just bought my first house, am planning a wedding, and hoping to start a family. And despite my love for my current school system, I am starting to eye the unionized public school systems in the area. I’m worried that, unprotected, I may soon not have the time and energy to give to my school or my family.

It’s not that my school by any means would intentionally overwhelm and exhaust their educators. I have never worked in an environment that felt more like a family. It’s just that when our education system is woefully underfunded and our standardized expectations are unreasonably high, it’s a dangerous combination for unintentional abuse. If we always need more and always have less, the weight of that burden will always fall on the backs of the educators- and we want, more than anything, for our schools and students to succeed. But we are only human beings- we have our limitations. Unions can help strike that balance in a district.

Teachers’ unions can also help to mediate the flow of ideas and rapport among the working community. The hierarchy of control from the teacher all the way up to the federal government can be so disconnected from the classroom. Unions make sure that teacher voice is a part of the conversation. Decisions- especially those affecting teacher workloads and hours- cannot be made unilaterally. Perhaps most importantly, decisions concerning the curriculum and school-wide pedagogical practices- something educators are professionals in, and know intimately- will consistently include teacher input when a union is involved in the system, making sure educators have the tools and conditions they need to help students succeed. These are all things the idealist 20-something I once was would never have considered.

And herein lies the trend, too. Currently, it seems, teachers’ union membership is currently in decline- particularly among younger educators. Younger generations of teachers worry that these unions are too self-serving and do not necessarily have the interests of students in mind. A distrust of long-held public institutions is certainly not unheard of in the up-and-coming leaders of our school systems. But again, when I was that age it was a lot easier to take the stance, too. If we are to seek fairness across the educational landscape, we must access a cross-generational voice- a forum these unions could possibly provide.

In the end, teachers’ unions are a “challenge by choice” for school districts. There are certainly costs and benefits across the board. We must balance self-advocacy with student need. Work time with personal time. Job satisfaction with student success. These are not easy balances to strike. At my school, we have slowly begun to opt toward more teacher-inclusive leadership roles- making sure every meeting, every council, and every committee and sub-committee has teacher representation. It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort, but both allows for our school to go “above and beyond” without ignoring the anxiety of the human that must fly that ship. If you have a voice in these matters (which you certainly should- sort of the point, yeah?), try to get your finger on the pulse of your coworkers. Always keep a wary eye on even the best-intentioned decisions made by your administrators. Take stock in your freedoms, as well as the district’s non-negotiables. This will help you to guide your staff toward the best path for embracing employee voice, while always keeping the students at the very center of the conversation.

Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.