Why We Need Unions in Teaching

When I was a rookie teacher, I didn’t really understand the purpose of the union. But, I joined because my college professors told me I’d better if I wanted to work in the state. In my second and third years of my career, though, the union became valuable beyond measure when a rogue principal demanded my participation in the character assignation of a colleague.

Several of us had congregated in the main office to use the copy machine when an agitated kid appeared in the office. He’d obviously been kicked out of class and was upset. He was waiting for the VP to discipline him but the VP was out of the building. Another teacher came in and told the kid to have a seat. He refused. They went back and forth, with the teacher saying the same thing over and over, go sit down. It escalated to yelling, but the script never altered. Talk about awkward. None of us stepped in because we all assumed the teacher was the one who’d sent the kid to the office. Eventually, a guidance counselor came and took the kid to into her office to settle down. It got out of hand quickly with the kid making harassment allegations against the teacher to the principal and the principal taking that opportunity to start the removal process for that teacher with whom he’d had trouble in the past.

When the rest of us caught wind of what was going on, we told the boss what really happened, but he was not interested. I, being naïve, thought, well, all I have to do is take him aside and explain what really happened and then he’ll fully understand and this will stop. Well, I started to tell him and he cut me right off and stepped in close to me and all pretense of warmth and collegiality disappeared from his face and he said, I didn’t have tenure and it was my word against his and he was telling people that I told him that that teacher DID say what the kid alleged and there was nothing I could do about it if I wanted to keep my job and he walked away.

I was stunned. I stumbled back to my classroom in total shock. When I told a colleague what happened, she immediately said, “You need to talk to the union”.

As a society we are over fond of using the word crazy. “He’s crazy or that lady is nuts!” we say. That was everyone’s first reaction to this story, to deem the guy crazy. But we don’t mean that they are actually mentally ill, what we really mean is that their behavior is inexplicable. I wasted many confused hours trying to understand why someone would be willing to behave that way in order to get what they wanted; I was new to ruthlessness. But not the union rep. He was unfazed and calmly walked me through the do’s and don’ts of working in a place where your boss has declared war on you.

That episode changed my world view. I came to understand that everybody has reasons for why they do things-good, bad and indifferent- and that we don’t always get to know what they are- mostly, we’ll never know.

The union exists so that none of the fallout of the actions of others infringes on the rights of the worker as agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement, that way if the motives are impure, employees are protected.

Twenty years into my career, I’ve worked with all sorts of bosses since then and most have been incredibly supportive. They all used to be teachers and they get it, which I really appreciate. But I still pay my union dues every month. When rookies come up to me and ask what exactly does the union do anyway, I say, “Kid, have I got a story for you.”

 * Personal note: Teachermother has been on an extended hiatus as my own mother was critically ill. I left work to care for her until her death this summer. It has taken me this long to get my mojo back. But it is back. I have a little side project I have been working on; a column called Curve Balls about being a non-athlete in a family of sports maniacs. I will run it in my other blog, countrysistah. Would love your feedback. Deb

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