Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Look for the Union labeling…..

In one of the news lists I receive, the discussion has focused on teacher union, a rather hot topic these days given the Florida legislature’s pending attempt to eliminate continuing contracts for Florida teachers. One of the comments in the discussion featured the following:

“As far as unions go, from my experience in a few different ones, there is no such thing as a ‘good union.’"

Sadly, this marks the tenor of the discussion about teachers generally and unions specifically. Indeed, calling it a discussion requires a stretch of the imagination. It’s more akin to a lynch mob than a thoughtful discussion.

I find it sad that teachers have become the scapegoat for an entire society’s ills. It confirms my fears about the value of education – or lack thereof - to our culture. Reform is too often code for taking a meat axe to a profession whose members already endure poor pay and often intolerable working conditions. And there is no small amount of irony in adults using skills taught them by teachers to decry the very professionals who helped make them who they are.

Perhaps more troubling is the mindlessness about unions which marks so much of this diatribe. One would think that unions are part of some kind of diabolical plot from the comments we read. Of course, what that demonstrates more than anything else is how skewed to the right our entire political system is in America. Cross the border in either direction and the question of whether unions should be allowed (note the parent/child presumption in this) would be seen as incomprehensible.

Teacher unions may well protect some incompetent teachers from their just deserts. Tenure may well allow some professors who long ago stopped caring about the education of their charges to coast to retirement. Where this is the case, this is where the focus should lie – on dealing with incompetence and lack of concern. But broadside bashing of unions is not only uncritical and thus unhelpful, it simply exacerbates the problem.

I am a fifth generation educator, third generation college educator teaching at least part time for 32 of my 56 years of life. I have taught students from fifth grade to doctoral level. I have worked under a number of managers in the process. And I have always been a union member. There are good reasons for that.

The principal at the middle school where I taught right out of undergraduate was a coach who had been promoted. He had promised to complete a masters degree as a condition of his job. Five years later he had taken one class. He played favorites with the local redneck kids at the expense of the newly arrived kids, mainly transplants from New York. He was racist, homophobic and prone to hit on young female faculty. He spit tobacco juice in a large can from the lunch room during his conferences. There were a lot of things you could say about this man but that I could ever trust him with my professional assessment or job security were not among them.

Five years later the administrator of the public schools hospital-homebound program in which I taught for two years was a rather obtuse (and obese) woman from the Bible Belt. She felt threatened by my law degree and rarely failed to remark about that in my presence. I once listed on the required absentee form my reason for absence as “ague,” a rather humorous (and archaic) way of saying “bad cold.” She returned my form with a sticky note reading “You have to give a reason for your absence.” I copied the definition from the dictionary and returned it to her. Later that year, word came to me that I’d need to find a new job. I did. Upon leaving I was told by a confidante in the administration that this woman had made homophobic remarks about me to fellow administrators from day 1.

If I based my understanding of management solely on these two examples, I’d come to the conclusion that educational management is incompetent and misanthropic. If I used the logic of the teacher union lynch mob, I would go on a crusade to reduce if not eliminate most educational management. Of course, that would be reducing an entire group of people to its worst examples. It would be intellectually lazy and dishonest. I refuse to do that. And my current department chair at the university where I teach is the example of why such is not appropriate. He is quite fair, open minded, highly qualified and effective. He cares deeply about his instructors and his students. So, while my examples do not make a case for a mindless dismissal of all educational management, they do readily illustrate why teachers need unions.

Without the union, I would have been fired mid year in both of those public school positions. The first required me to work at $8000/year gross, no benefits (1977) and no contract. The school board members publicly called their teachers “fools” and said if they didn’t like working for near the poverty level, they could leave. In the second job, I grieved the school board twice and won twice for contract violations. Little wonder that a teacher with a law degree intent on holding the board to its contractual obligations would become a target for firing.

Unions are a necessary evil. They are not perfect, anymore than any other human institution. But that includes the management to which teachers are subject. To leave teachers defenseless against arbitrary and sometimes incompetent managers does not promote quality education, it generates dissension, low morale and resentment.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Pat said...

Well said. I'd like to share this with my Facebook friends, one of whom is the husband of a teacher in Florida dealing with the current goings-on.
pat denino

frharry said...

Sure. Feel free to post as you see fit.