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For Real Teacher Advocacy, Don't Forget Unions

Jennifer Martin

Just yesterday, my friend Linda came to me with an update on her daughter, who's spent the past year as an early-childhood educator in a Midwestern, inner-city school. Linda exclaimed, "I never thought I'd say this, but she needs a union!"

Last summer, when her daughter was accepted into Teach for America's prestigious program, Linda told me she was happy her daughter was going to help solve the problems of poor children who were being under-served in the public schools. She seemed certain that her smart, spunky, and dedicated daughter could bring positive change where seasoned professionals in the traditional public system had failed. But, as the mother explained to me yesterday, in the city where this new teacher works, preschools are separate from the public system and do not have unionized teachers. As a result, the daughter has found herself in a system that exploits a disposable teaching workforce made up of recent college graduates with no experience, inadequate training, little support, punitive management, and paltry compensation. She is now discouraged, exhausted, and planning to get the heck out of teaching as quickly as possible.

Increasingly, circumventing collective bargaining and making short-term use of idealistic young graduates seem to be politically popular. Experienced educators often appear to be slow and ineffective in protecting the communities they serve from these dubious "reforms."

There's a common saying in politics: "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu." Unfortunately, public educators are often not seated at the table when political decisions are being made that affect our working lives and our students. Perhaps it's because teachers prefer to support and serve, rather than challenge and argue. Perhaps it's simply because we're too danged overworked to have time for political causes. But if we are truly going to serve the children to whom we've dedicated our working lives, we need to engage in the struggle of politics.

After reading the umpteenth teacher-bashing editorial in my local newspapers and seething privately, I started writing letters to the editor. Sometimes my letters got published. But then I decided that I needed to become active in my local union to have any real impact on the issues affecting teachers and our students. I'm fortunate to work in a state that is not hostile to organized labor and to belong to a progressive labor organization that employs "interest-based bargaining" rather than using oppositional tactics. (This means our leadership doesn't draw battle lines and see how much ground can be gained and held, but instead works with the other stakeholders to find common goals and negotiate how to meet them.) Interestingly, many of the most successful school systems—of which mine is one—have a strong union presence.

As part of my union, I've attended state and county rallies, helped organize town hall meetings with local politicians, had one-on-one meetings with legislators, written letters, worked the polling stations, and participated in radio and television forums on education. I find that when relationships are developed with political leaders, trust can be established and there is a willingness on the part of those who govern to listen to those of us who are experts in our field. And trust me, all of us who work with students have knowledge born of experience that trumps politics. Moreover, I have learned the power of my teachers' association to make sure I am standing with my colleagues, not alone, on these issues.

My friend's daughter was out there on her own, with no union organization to support her. Now she is looking to get out of teaching altogether.

Jennifer Martin, an English teacher at Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., has taught nearly every grade of middle and high school at every skill level, from special education inclusion to advanced placement.

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