I currently teach in a unique program that is dedicated to meeting the social/emotional needs of students who have been disengaged in school in order to make progress with academic goals.  My classroom experience allows me to utilize and continue to develop my professional training for students with intensive needs.  Like many of you, I love the work that I do, but I am also very concerned about the world of education outside of my classroom.

I began teaching in 2010 which, coincidentally, is when sh*t hit the fan for public workers/educators in Wisconsin. Our governor (like so many other politicians in the United States) was able to pass Act 10, a law that stifled the voices of teachers and advocates for public education through the elimination of collective bargaining rights. This was a confusing time for me. I had just started teaching and was excited about the work I was doing. But outside of school, my family, friends, neighbors, and media expressed that they felt unions were to blame for the ‘failure’ of our public schools.  Their thoughts did not match with what I was learning about public schools through my direct experience.

At work, I was inspired by the intelligent, dedicated, and hardworking staff who quickly sprung into action to inform others about the potentially disastrous effects of Act 10.  I wanted to learn more from them. To me, these were real educators – down to fight the battle to bring professionalism back to teaching, at the front lines to advocate for what is best for students, all with a deep understanding of social justice and the many different challenges our students face in their everyday lives. The teachers were part of their professional organization, a.k.a. the union. Among them, I was so proud to be a teacher! This feeling was in direct contrast to how I felt outside the classroom walls. I never wanted to share what my profession was with others.  I was too worried I’d hear the word, “mooch,” “union thug,” “freeloader,” or become defensive and get into a hate-filled political battle. I still have a hard time understanding how the views were so far apart and how insensitive people were to me. I was a new teacher.

I was disheartened when I learned that there were people within the profession who also held negative beliefs or spoke inaccurately about teachers and unionism.  I have had countless conversations with non-members who say that they will not join the union. Frankly, the reasons and rationale I have heard really scare me. If teachers don’t understand what’s going on in education, how can we expect parents, community members, or even administrators to understand?  How can we expect more support and resources for our students and schools?  Can any of us alone accomplish these large tasks?

I hear four very common responses to why people choose not to be a part of their professional organization:

  1. Due to Act 10, there is no longer a union in our district (I know teachers in many districts!)
  2. I don’t know why we have a union – it’s the 21st century
  3. I have a good administrator, so I’ll be fine
  4. I can’t afford it.

You say, “my school doesn’t have a union.” Who do you think the union is? Some outside agency or outside group of people not involved in education? The union is YOU. The definition of a union is: “an organization of workers formed to protect the rights and interests of its members” and “an act of joining two or more things together.” This means, as a union member, you join with other people to help advocate and preserve our profession and what’s best for the students we teach. This cannot be limited to the small group of people who dedicate themselves to union leadership; it requires everyone involved in education!

You say, “I don’t know why we need unions now-a-days.” Why have unions? Unions protect us from arbitrary exercise of power. Why do you think thousands of people protested in Madison, WI at the Capitol in 2010 and it drew national attention? Why did teachers drive for hours to Madison after the school day in the cold and snow for weeks on end?  Why were people so upset by our governor and his proposed budgets? What was it all for?  Unions advocate for workers, and teachers advocate for students. To put it simply: a union is a human resources department paid for by the employees. Therefore it only makes sense to be part of an organization filled with people that are just like you to help decide what your hours, compensation, benefits, evaluations and general work conditions will be like. In addition, a union helps educate our administration, human resources, and school boards about what’s best for the growth and development of the children we teach.

You say, “I have a good administrator, so I’ll be good.” The average tenure for school administrators is five years, your current principal will more than likely not always be there. Through unions, not administrators, we have the ability to speak up about the injustices and inequities within our schools. The “tools” suggested by our governor to improve education are grossly inappropriate and damaging to children and have led to limited professional development for teachers, the draining of funds from public schools to unaccountable charter and voucher schools, less emphasis on social/emotional education and more time on literacy, and an ever increasing use of standardized testing.

I was one of the protestors at the Capitol in 2010. The people speaking up about how awful these new laws would be included teachers, parents, children, and supporters. While I am sure there were administrators present, none of my administrators ever indicated that they were there. I found it incredibly odd that the world of education was rocking on the outside, but it was never mentioned by our administrators on the inside. In our darkest days, I did not see or feel their support.  It was teachers.

And last but not least, you say “I don’t have the money to pay for union dues.” When so much is at stake for students, staff, and schools, you can’t afford not to be apart of your professional organization. It’s the one and only body of people that have stood up for public education.

When talking to people who are not part of the union it’s just so hard for me to listen to their logic. It’s so difficult for me because I am an activist and truly view being a part of my union as an important piece of me becoming the best public educator I can be.  The union has educated me about the policies that impact my work with students. The union has helped me find my voice. I am no longer worried about stating that I am a teacher and a union member.  When I say I am part of the union, I know I am standing alongside people that advocate for children, are highly educated, compassionate, and work for the collective good.

I am more a professional because I am part of the union.

Some websites of inspiration…

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