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For most of my teaching career, I did not belong to a professional organization, such as a teacher’s union. I always rationalized that with a teacher’s salary, I could not afford the dues. So for all those years, I was someone who benefitted from the strength in numbers that the teachers’ union provided, but I did not contribute financially to the maintenance of that organization. I was a freeloader.I was someone who benefitted from the strength in numbers that the teachers’ union provided, but I did not contribute financially Click To Tweet
After I became a teacher in the state of Virginia, the President of the teacher’s local, himself a social studies teacher, talked to me about the importance of getting involved in the political side of education. He saw that I was heavily involved in the federal and state elections that were taking place at the time (in 2012, the year President Obama was re-elected). The then-President of the Loudoun Education Association (LEA) encouraged me not only to join the union, but to use my leadership skills to further the union’s causes. In spite of my busy schedule, I accepted his challenge and joined. That summer I participated in a leadership seminar where we shared our stories with other teachers, made workplace visits to discuss the importance of our organization, and we encouraged other educators, support staff, and para-educators to join the union.
Joining the Union
When my application to be in the Loudoun Education Association was accepted, I learned that I had actually joined three organizations: The LEA at the local level, the Virginia Education Association at the state level, and the National Education Association, the nation’s largest workers union with a membership of three million. I also saw that my dues came out of my paycheck twice per month, but union dues are still tax deductible, at least for now. The cost of membership pays for itself as I am now entitled to various discounts and promotions through all three organizations. NEA members can take advantage of car and home insurance that are at competitive rates as long as they are employed by a school system.
But what does the teachers’ union really do for me? What do my dues really buy? Can being a member and even a leader in the Association actually improve the working conditions to which I am subject and for those of my colleagues, and in turn, improve the quality of education which my students receive? My fervent hope is that my involvement adds strength in numbers to all the teachers who work together to make public education stronger for both students and teachers. According to the mission statement of my own local Association, the Loudoun Education Association:
The Loudoun Education Association is an advocacy organization for quality public schools and public school employees where members work collaboratively and organize for action to reach the common goals of the Association.
The Virginia Education Association reinforces the idea that all members of the educational community must work together to make schools better for both students and teachers. Their mission statement reads:
The mission of the Virginia Education Association is to unite our members and local communities across the Commonwealth in fulfilling the promise of a high quality public education that successfully prepares every single student to realize his or her full potential. We believe this can be accomplished by advocating for students, education professionals, and support professionals.
At the National level, the NEA has been advocating for teachers and their students since 1857. It is currently led by Lily Eskelsen García, a former cafeteria worker and special education assistant who rose through the ranks of teachers’ organizations in Utah to eventually head the nation’s largest labor union. With a strong personality and a sense of humor, she has spoken out on many issues of national importance such as the excessive use of standardized testing to evaluate student progress and to evaluate teacher performance. Smaller class size, appropriate compensation for teachers, and the importance of educational support personnel (ESPs) are other issues that the NEA brought to the forefront of education policy under Ms. Eskelsen-Garcia’s leadership.
Acting as an Advocate for Teachers and Support Personnel
The teachers’ union (known as “the Association”) is essential for helping teachers through difficult situations. If a teacher is experiencing what is called a “hostile work environment” due to harassment, bullying, or intimidation by administration, staff, or students, the Association will provide guidance and a representative to help resolve the situation. This would also be the case if a student or parent acted in a way that was threatening or violent. If a teacher was undergoing some form of discipline on the part of the administration, or if a teacher is being reprimanded or in danger of being dismissed, the Association can provide a recourse for the teacher. They will send a representative, who may or may not work in the same building, to advocate for the teacher, present more desirable alternatives to the administrator, and provide guidance for the teacher being considered.
The teachers’ Associations also work with teachers who have evaluation concerns. If a teacher has been given scores that they feel are biased or unfair, the Association can present those concerns to the administration in the hopes of improving the outcome for the teacher.
The Association acts as a mediator between administration and other stakeholders within the educational community such as school boards and the classroom teachers or support personnel. If a school employee has a grievance, there is a specific procedure by which these complaints are adjudicated. The Association provides assistance in seeing that the teachers concerns are heard, acknowledged, and to ensure that their due process rights are not violated.
Lobbying and Political Activism
All three levels of the teachers’ associations are involved in the process of influencing all levels of government to pass laws and set policies that improve public education. One example of this effort is where regular classroom teachers acts as “lobbyists for a day” and descend on the state capital to meet with state delegates and state senators in order to share their concerns facing educators today. The primary issue these teacher-lobbyists discuss with legislators is the state school budget, which must be equitably allocated to the various districts around the state, each of which has its own level of need and funding. Funding the budget has direct impact on teacher salaries, class size, and expenditure per pupil.
Among the many areas of education advocacy, the National Education Association also works with federal and state lawmakers to close the achievement gap between urban and rural school as well as between different ethnic and cultural groups. A number of states have received grant funding directly from NEA to improve resources and instruction in states where test scores and student outcomes had been lagging.
One of NEA’s victories was the repeal of the much-detested No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed by the Bush administration to increase teacher accountability through standardized testing in the core fields of reading, math, science, and social studies. While our district still mandates that students pass a standardized test in order to receive credit for the high school level course they took (called a “verified credit”), many states are abandoning the process of evaluating teachers by way of test scores. Here in Virginia, the tests and the curriculum driven by those tests are called the “Standards of Learning,” a term which results in the unfortunate acronym of “SOLs.” The effort to assess student performance has been replaced with the bipartisan passage of the federal law known as The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). According to the NEA website, ESSA allows states to…
….rely on more than just math and reading test scores when determining a school’s success. They can look at things like robust arts and athletics programs. Full time counselors and nurses and librarians. Strong parent and family engagement programs. Rigorous AP classes and engaging electives.
All levels of the teachers’ association make recommendations to their members regarding which candidates for office are friendly to the cause of public education. These candidates are interviewed, and if they meet the association criteria for supporting education, the association will contribute to their campaigns with funding, staffing, and grassroots political activism. No teacher dues are used for this purpose. Educators can donate as they wish to a political action committee (PAC) run by NEA to support the candidates of their choice.
The Union Represents Teachers and School Employees Working Together
Teachers unions play an essential role in keeping public education strong in the United States. Teachers make up an important part of the economy, and their economic well-being is critical in making sure they are effective in the classroom. Making sure schools have the funding they need to meet the needs of their students is also a basic role of teachers’ associations. Whether you belong to the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association, teachers must be united in their efforts to educate young people to prepare for the economy of the 21st century.