Teacher and Professor of Education Emery Petchauer explains how he came to understand the necessity of teachers union strikes.
In every position I’ve held as an educator—from high school English teacher to college professor—the faculty went through contract negotiations and threatened to strike. In each of these positions, I must admit that I’ve been more or less ambivalent about the process. I could see the relevance of the issues to me, but I had difficulty seeing the immediate relevance.
The difference between a 2% raise and a 4% raise was negligible. I was going to work regardless, and income never factored into my professional decisions anyway. And as healthy person with no dependents who often goes years—thankfully—without having to visit a doctor, micro changes in health benefits were of little concern to me. And like many educators, I plan to retire when I hit the grave, so slight changes to benefits packages did not move me. Perhaps due to selfishness and a naïve tendency to focus on the immediate rather than the long term, I seldom saw the core issues of contract negotiations as that pressing for me. Plus, I’d rather be with my kids than with other adults talking or marching. I became an educator to educate.
Additionally, my ambivalence was fueled by seeing that some of the most vocal teachers (though not all) were also the worst teachers. It seemed that the people who yelled the loudest about a “fair” contract took little effort to use this fair contract to become better teachers. Without a doubt, some of the most effective teachers around me also believed strongly in having a fair contract, but the hypocrisy of the few was not lost on me.
Broader than the issues or who was fighting for them, I also wasn’t raised in a union family or community. My parents were self-employed and owned their own business. While this created a different set of issues for them, it was the most familiar model of employment to me, thus I lacked the ability to see how unique it was to make the types of decisions that people make when they control their own labor.
Despite my ambivalence and lack of understanding, as a union member, I paid my monetary dues, went to our meetings, and joined the other members when we picketed before school as a last measure before a possible strike. I couldn’t internalize the importance of collective labor, unionizing, and contract negotiations until I saw beyond the immediate and realized it wasn’t about me.
As a teacher educator (educating teachers of the future), I have the privilege of walking with people through induction and early stages of their careers. I get to see the micro decisions and weighing of options, and I get to see what ultimately drives people out of the classroom and what causes they to change their minds. Time and time again, I’ve seen teacher evaluation systems based upon students’ standardized test scores, the regular firing of teachers every summer (aka Pink Slip Summer) only to hire them back before the fall, and mandated curricula that dumbs down students causing teachers to walk away from the calling they so strongly felt. When teachers fight these movements in education and argue for better ones—including better pay—they not just fighting for themselves. They are creating a profession that will attract, preserve, and protect teachers in the future. It’s not always about the present; sometimes is about the future we can help create.
When I finally realized that we weren’t only working for our own benefit but for the benefit of future teachers, I saw the importance of raw contract negotiations and even a strike. When people see thousands of Chicago Public School teachers organizing in the streets, it is all too easy (and incorrect) to assume that they are fighting for only themselves. If we want teaching to be a profession that is attractive to the “best and brightest” and a viable long term career (not one that is used as a 2-year stepping-stone to another career), we have to take-up the fight today. This is precisely what teachers in Chicago are doing.
Emery Petchauer (@EmeryPetchauer) is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Development and Educational Studies at Oakland University. He is also a former high school English teacher.
Also read Jamie Utt’s The Chicago Teacher Strike is NOT About Teacher Salaries
All photos courtesy of Mathias Johnson Photography