Unions are professional organizations. They provide services for teachers that cover an incredible gamut of purposes. Yet, despite all the positive work teachers’ unions do for students, and education in general, some groups continue to criticize these organizations without really understanding their purpose and their function.
Here are a few of the biggest misconceptions:
1. Unions protect bad teachers
People who believe unions’ sole purpose is to protect teachers often vilify unions in the public eye. The argument is that bad teachers are protected once they earn the dreaded “T” word: tenure. This is a major misconception.
What unions do is protect teachers from simply being fired on the spot by a vindictive administrator. Their role is to protect the contractual process that has been negotiated by all parties. When I sit in with teachers and administrators, my role as the local union president is to guarantee that the process is followed correctly. I ensure that professional plans are developed with measurable criteria. I also make sure that the plans are implemented appropriately.
That process, at least in my district, requires that an objective plan with measurable steps be in place and that the teacher in question is provided with support and professional development that will improve her/his instruction. Both the teacher and administrator agree to these professional development plans. Meetings occur after observations, and discussions are had about progress, continued challenges, and strategies to improve instruction for students.
If, after two years, that teacher has not shown marked improvement in her/his teaching, as laid out in the plan, s/he may be in a situation where the contract is not renewed.
2. Unions are reactive
More often than not, the public focuses on teachers’ unions when budgets are discussed or contract negotiations are being held. At these times, unions are often lambasted for only protecting teachers and driving up local costs. Again, this is a terrible misconception, as unions are also responsible for providing professional development throughout the year.
In Maine, that professional development takes a variety of forms, such as one-day conferences that are open to members for free and non-members for a minimal cost. Ongoing professional development is also offered by way of Saturday support meetings for teachers in the process of applying for National Board certification. Both of these examples have direct, positive impacts on students as they allow teachers to exchange successful strategies and hone their craft.
Additionally, union leaders are often trained on a variety of issues, including legislative actions that are going on within the state. That information is then conveyed to the union members.
3. Unions are obstacles to change
Finally, unions are perceived as being obstacles to change. Most recently, teacher evaluation systems have been in the spotlight.
What is actually happening in many places is that teachers’ unions are cooperatively working, or even taking the lead, in the development of more informative and helpful ways to measuring the effectiveness of teachers.
For example, when the Maine legislature mandated local districts to develop a new teacher effectiveness system, educational communities (teachers, teacher associations, administrators, and concerned members of the public) came together and reviewed existing evaluation programs. All of those stakeholders have been able to productively discuss the goals of education in their locale and develop a way of measuring teacher effectiveness.
At the end of this process, these efforts translate directly to better educational experiences for students.
People often forget some of the things that unions have done for us over the years. The 40-hour, five-day workweek is one of those things.
For so long, unions were the backbone of the workforce in this country, and now they are targets for misinformed people that do not understand their purpose or how they function. Teachers’ unions support sound educational practice, the practitioners, and the improvement of learning opportunities for students.