On days like these…

Today was one of those days when the feeling that has become all too familiar this year—frustration and burnout—all but overwhelmed me. It has honestly been one of those days that make me stop and question everything I am doing: teaching, operating as steward, fighting on the legislative front, writing this blog. All these activities (and all but the first completely unpaid) that take up about 85% of my waking time. I question all of it not because I care any less about any of the causes, but because sometimes I feel this terrible futility in everything that I am doing. I know deep down that I am “fighting the good fight,” but on days like this it feels more like I am butting my head against a brick wall. No matter what you do and how well you do it and how hard you work at it, there will always be someone around to knock it down.

I am not looking for praise. I am not looking for people to call me or e-mail me or leave comments on here telling me I’m doing a great job. I know that I am doing the best I can at everything I do given the circumstances and my time constraints and all the other restrictions put upon me, like all of us. I am sure I could do any one of those activities better if I were to give up all the other ones and focus that 85% of my waking time on just one, but it is my deep-seated belief that they all go hand in hand. How could I spend all my time ONLY on planning lessons and grading papers, if I am allowing people who do not have the best interest of my students in mind to dictate how I do that job—when I know full well that what they want goes against what I know as a professional to be best for my students? Nor would I ever dream of neglecting my duties as a teacher, as long as I am in the classroom, to devote myself solely to my union duties or my political activities. For one thing, I know very well what I am being paid to do, and I have every intention of earning every penny I make, no matter how few pennies come in each paycheck. For another, all the more so because I am so active in our union and because I do put myself out there on a regular basis, I want to exemplify a dedicated educator who puts her students first and constantly grows and learns so that every year she earns her raise, whether she actually gets it or not.

Yet the frustration and burnout come at me from all sides and from all activities. In the classroom, I feel the rage boiling in the pit of my stomach when, of the 35 students sitting in front of me (far too many for an academic class, elective or not), perhaps 20 have done their homework (and of those, probably 10 copied someone else’s). And most of them do not feel the slightest guilt or shame at not having done their homework; they laugh at it, because, “Ms. Smith, you know by now I’m not going to do my homework.” There are students—albeit a minority, luckily—who happily take zero after zero, refusing to even write their name on their paper. Sometimes it is all I can do to keep my patience. I have to remind myself that it’s their zero, not mine. But knowing that, by law, I am now to be judged based on what they do and do not do, when I have no control over what they do and do not do, particularly once they leave my classroom, is infuriating. When I explained, in such a moment of frustration, to a class yesterday that 50% of my evaluation this year will come from their reading FCAT scores, their jaws dropped in sheer disbelief. “But why? You don’t teach reading.” Yes, my dears, I am aware of that. One student who does next to nothing in my class asked if it came from ninth and tenth grade scores, and I said yes; he looked relieved and said, “Oh, OK; I’m a junior, so I won’t hurt you.” It was the type of moment where you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. The whole situation is just so preposterous it doesn’t seem possible. Yet it is reality. And that is why I fight on the political front.

There are few things—maybe nothing—I believe in more strongly than the power of organized labor to improve the conditions of workers. I do not come from a “union family.” My parents are die-hard conservatives. Yet anyone looking at the history of our country (as so many others) can clearly see what unions have done for workers. It is thanks to unions that we no longer condone child labor. It is because of unions that there are safety standards for workplaces, and overtime pay. It is because of unions that we have sick leave, weekends off, paid holidays, maternity leave. Unions are what used to make manufacturing and agriculture jobs ones that allowed you to support a family, buy a home, live comfortably if not luxuriously, and retire with dignity. Since our country’s free trade policies have allowed corporations to outsource labor to third-world countries that do not respect human rights, let alone workers’ rights, we have seen manufacturing die in this country, and instead of blaming the flight of jobs on the policies that allow it, the legislators who make those policies, and the corporations whose profits are more important to them than human life and dignity, the media and politicians blame the unions who demanded decent wages and benefits for their workers.

Living in France did much to shape my view of labor. Obviously labor is much stronger in France than in the US, and has far more power. But it is not only that. What was fascinating for me as an American to observe in Europe in general, and in France in particular, is the public mentality as regards labor. In France, unionized workers are constantly going on strike: transportation workers, postal workers, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, doctors, and yes, teachers too! And while these strikes do indeed inconvenience the public—that is, of course, what they are meant to do—I was routinely amazed to find that, by and large, the public did not begrudge the strikers. If I expressed annoyance that I could not take a train because of a strike, a friend or colleague would quickly point out to me that they had reasonable demands. While nobody was happy about having to walk instead of take the metro, most people didn’t really seem too upset, either. The general position was, more often than not, to side with labor over management. In the US, as you well know, it is quite the opposite. Any workers going on strike or even mentioning a strike are instantly vilified, to the point that it is, indeed, an unmentionable. Laws are passed to prohibit many classes of workers (including teachers, police, and firefighters, among others) from striking. Unions in general are made out over and over again to be the enemy of the common good. Auto workers’ unions were blamed for the collapse of the automobile industry—yet why was no one questioning why health care costs continue to skyrocket unchecked? Should the auto workers’ unions have thrown in the towel and said their members had no right to decent, affordable health care for themselves and their families? When teachers’ unions demand livable salaries commensurate with their level of education and experience, and the challenging work they do, they are accused of being greedy, only thinking about the adults—as if there were somehow something contradictory about being dedicated to the students you teach and still wanting to be able to pay the bills. When we fight bad laws that turn children into commodities, cash cows if you will, pit us against each other, turn our schools into testing factories designed to make the testing industry even richer, and seek to replace live teachers with a computer, we are told that we are just protecting the interests of lazy, incompetent teachers who are afraid of accountability. The overwhelming majority of Americans belong to the working and middle class—labor, if you will, even if the majority are no longer organized. And yet the general public will side with management over labor any day. Why?

It is all the more frustrating when those siding against labor are doing it from within organized labor. Everyone has a right to agree or disagree with decisions made, with contracts negotiated, with details. Everyone is free to voice that opinion. Everyone has a right to like or dislike leadership, and to express those opinions as well. But I will never understand how it serves anyone other than the enemy to seek to divide those of us within the union, when we need each other’s strength in numbers more than ever. Some people seem to live in a fantasy world, where the $2 billion in budget cuts to our district never happened, where the cost of health care did not increase by 13-16% annually, where we are not facing a slew of unfunded mandates that cut into our budget even as we go underpaid and our buildings crumble around us. Either they are blissfully unaware of these realities, or else they believe that our union, despite mediocre membership (since, so many again siding with management will say with a shrug, Why pay for what you can get for free?), despite facing one of the most anti-labor, pro-privatization state governments in the country, has a magic wand and can conjure up the missing millions and billions that our governor and legislators have taken away and that have been lost in property taxes and other revenue…and that they are just holding out on them just because. I’d like to see them show me where that money is besides in layoffs. I’d like to see them go in and negotiate a better deal with the district themselves. It is so much easier to complain than to do; to tear down than to build up. If these people have constructive suggestions, they should have brought them forward during the months that negotiations were going on. Our bargaining team, made up of rank and file members like the rest of us, came up with $28 million in savings. The district came to the table with not only no intention of giving us a step, but with every intention of making us pay for the increased cost of health care. The hard work and creativity of our bargaining team, made up of rank and file members, came up with the savings that put us in a position to be able to negotiate 100% employer-paid health care despite the budget cuts, the rise in health care costs, when no other union around has been able to. But there will still always be someone in the wings ready with the e-mail and the text messages ready to impute the motives of those working with us and for us, for no discernible purpose other than dividing people and breaking down our union. And these are, as often as not, people within the union.

Our fights are far from over. New legislation filed this week in Tallahassee would cause our district to lose another $45 million a year to charter schools. We have lawsuits against last year’s pension “reform” (otherwise known as a pay cut for public workers) and SB 736 whose results we are still waiting on, and which will cost us millions of dollars. More than ever we need to stand united, agreeing to disagree on some details but agreeing on the big picture, which is making a united front in favor of labor, in favor of the children we serve, in favor of what belongs to the taxpayers, belongs to us, and should not be usurped by big money in the form of highly-paid charter school and education technology lobbyists. Instead, some within our ranks would rather we spend our time fighting each other, imputing each other’s motives, accusing each other of all kinds of crimes against humanity.

I believe in this fight. I believe in this union. I believe in the power of organized workers to stand together and demand they be given the salary, benefits and working conditions that allow them to provide for their families and live and retire with dignity. We may not have the money of corporations, but we have the votes. And yet we don’t use them. And some of us, when we do use them, use them to elect people who do nothing but stab us in the backs and try their hardest to take away our jobs, to close our schools and to put our families on the streets. Sometimes the frustration and futility are overwhelming to me. There is so much to do, and I do not even know where to begin.

This is a long post and perhaps tangential to things going on in our school. But I wanted to share with you all what I am going through in my position as steward right now, and hopefully engage a discussion with you about what we can do to make our union stronger, and to hold together when everyone—including some within our ranks—wants to tear us apart.

Thanks for reading! Have a relaxing weekend.  🙂

Unions are good for education.

This is an op-ed piece I sent to the Miami Herald; it probably will not be published, but it’s always worth a try!


On Fox News, all over the Internet, in the emotional but reality-challenged film Waiting for Superman, in letters to the editor of the Miami Herald, the complaints are all pretty much the same: Teachers’ unions exist to protect bad teachers. Without teachers’ unions, our children (regardless of the child poverty rate of over 20% in the US) would all be outpacing Finland, Korea, and Singapore. (Never mind the fact that Finland, for example, has an entirely unionized teaching force.)

This is by far the most widely espoused fallacy about our unions. Our unions protect due process. Incompetent, ineffective, or negligent teacher can be fired, and that was already true before SB 736. It only means that administrators must have just cause to fire a teacher. Those who say that there is no reason administrators would ever want to fire a good teacher have almost undoubtedly never worked in a school. There are principals (just as there are managers in other fields) who would gladly fire someone for any number of reasons not related to her job performance: political beliefs, sexual orientation, race, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), willingness to speak out when she disagrees with administrators’ policies—or simply in order to open up a position for a friend or relative. Such baseless dismissals are the grounds for many lawsuits every year in the private sector. Due process, a 90-day procedure in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, simply ensures that nobody is fired without just cause. This is quite different from ensuring nobody is fired at all.

While the number of incompetent teachers is actually very low, the ones still in the classroom are there not because of union protection, but because the administration at their schools did not bother to make the case to get them out. If unions were really to blame for incompetent teachers in the classroom, we would see far higher rates of teachers being fired in non-union states—yet this is not the case. Statistics show that teachers are fired at the same rates nationwide, regardless of union participation.

Principals may choose not to fire a teacher for any number of reasons. Said teacher may be a friend, or the spouse or relative of a friend. Sometimes administrators have never been teachers themselves, and do not know how to identify good teaching. Until the economic downturn there was a teacher shortage. A principal might fear firing an underperforming teacher, only to find no replacement. As often as not, administrators simply do not want to take the time to do the observations required by due process—thus their complaints that it is “too hard” to fire a teacher. Yet if you were going to be fired from your job, would you not expect the superior firing you to at least observe your work—and preferably more than just a few minutes on one single day? Many teachers go for years without being observed by their principal. Is this “union protection” or administrative incompetence?

The other main objection to teachers’ unions is that they serve the interest of the adults rather than the children. How often is a doctor accused of not caring about his patients because he earns a lot of money? I have yet to meet the teacher who went into this field in hopes of getting rich. We love what we do, and we care greatly about the education and well-being of the children we work with every day. This does not mean we want (or deserve) to work for substandard wages. The low salary, and nowadays the lack of respect, accorded to teachers make it an unappealing career to most top-level graduates. According to the Education Policy Analysis Archives, only 4.7% of college juniors would consider teaching at the current starting salary. It defies logic to argue that high salaries are necessary to attract and retain talent in some professions, but not in education.

Our unions advocate for sound education policies that will benefit children. More often than not, the causes we lobby for are one and the same as those parents are fighting for: fair tests (in reasonable amounts), smaller class sizes, a well-rounded curriculum, and adequate and equitable funding for public schools. Such policies are good for teachers, but they are equally good for children.