The Teachers and the Teacher Unions!

Come to think of it, a teachers’ lot has not quite improved over time. Some of them are seen selling all sorts of stuff in the premises of the school. Still, some of them probably go into another job after their teaching schedule if only to “make both ends meet” in this economic environment characterized by high prices. The so-called purchasing power of the peso is not one that brings teachers to a ‘comfort zone’. The whole scenario for teachers is far from ideal. They have more students than the ideal size of 40 per class – some of them from 70 to 120 students (DLP classes) for one class alone. That means more test papers to check, more students evaluate recitation, class activity, quizzes, seatwork, project and assignments.

Social justice dictates that those who worked more should be properly compensated with just remuneration in exchange for their services. If this fails, the teachers fail, too. And when teachers fail, so do the students – so do the parents. We all fail in the final analysis. That is why, until the teachers do really get their just compensation package, we should not expect too much of what they can deliver in terms of quality education, innovative methods in teaching, and levels of research and expertise in their subject specialties. Perhaps, pulling the teachers up just above the poverty threshold so no one drowns in abject poverty is really a good subject matter of legislative action. This way, the best of the crop of future teachers will be recruited and avoid the flight of human capital, so to speak. Indeed, this unfortunate situation can more or less be mitigated by the existence of the teacher unions, which will defend the defenseless and redress their grievances.

We live in an era when leaders in business and the media demand that schools function like businesses in a free market economy, competing for students and staff. Many such voices say that such corporate-style school reform is blocked by the teacher unions, which stand in the way of leaders who want unchecked power to assign, reward, punish, or remove their employees.

Some academics blame the unions when student achievement remains stagnant. If scores are low, the critics say it must be because of the teachers' contract, not because of the lacks resources or has mediocre leadership. These critics want to scrap the contract, throw away teachers' legal protections, and bring teacher unions to their collective knees. It is worth recalling why teachers joined unions and why unions remain important today. Take tenure, for example. The teacher unions didn't invent tenure, despite widespread beliefs to the contrary. Tenure evolved in the 19th century as one of the few perks available to people who were paid low wages, had classes of 40 or more, and endured terrible working conditions. Pay for teaching was meager.

Today, teacher unions around the country continue to play important roles in protecting the rights of teachers, especially in the current climate of school reform like K+12 and the likes. There's a common view among corporate-style reformers today that the way to fix low-performing schools is to install an autocratic principal who rules with an iron fist. Many new principals have been trained in quickie programs for a year or less, which try to teach them to think like corporate leaders. Many of the graduates of these new principal programs have little classroom experience, and some have none at all. Many of them lack the judgment and knowledge to make wise decisions about curriculum and instruction or to evaluate seasoned teachers. When experienced teachers must work under the control of an inexperienced principal, they need the protection of their union against arbitrary and unwise decisions. Teachers found that they were in trouble if they did not teach exactly as management dictated, and if they did not follow the scripted cookie-cutter format of mini-lessons.

In these past few years, I have often been confronted by teachers who asked what they could do when their heads and Deans insisted that they teach in ways they (the teachers) believed were wrong. I could only answer that they should be glad they belonged to a union with the power to protect them from "oppressive supervision,". The union is thus necessary as a protection for teachers against the arbitrary exercise of power by heavy-handed administrators. Just as the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government all act as checks on each other, we need checks and balances in our school systems. It is unwise to centralize all powers in one person. We need independent teacher unions to assure that the teachers' rights are protected, to sound the alarm against unwise policies, and to advocate on behalf of sound education policies, especially when administrators are non-educators.

In the current climate, when it is in fashion to select non-educators to administer school systems, it is vital that teachers have a voice. School reform cannot possibly succeed when teachers—who are on the front lines of implementation—are left out of the decision-making process. If there is no "buy-in," if teachers do not willingly concur with the orders handed down from on high, then reform cannot succeed. If administrators operate by stealth and confrontation, then their plans for reform will flounder. They cannot improve what happens in the classroom by humiliating and bossing around the teachers who are in daily contact with the children. Only in an atmosphere of mutual respect can administrators and teachers produce the kind of partnership that will benefit students. And administrators cannot achieve this collaborative atmosphere unless they are willing to talk with and listen to the leaders chosen by teachers to represent them. The essentials of good education are the same everywhere: a rigorous curriculum, effective instruction, adequate resources, willing students, and a social and cultural climate in which education is encouraged and respected.

Teacher unions today, as in the past, must work to make these essentials available for every school and every student. They cannot do it alone. They must work with administrators and elected officials to advance these goals. The unions will continue to be important, vital, and needed so long as they speak on behalf of the rights and dignity of teachers alongside with their works and the essentials of good education. Please remember “Work must be an escape from poverty, not another version of it.”