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Ask a teacher; they bring diverse perspectives

Tim Farmer is a Teach for America alumnus and current membership director for the Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE)

Back when I was a member of the NEA teachers union, one of the things that bothered me the most was that, in their attempt to present a unified front to the public, they silenced valid dissent and stifled healthy debate about the future of the profession. Now that I am working with Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE), one of the things that make me proud is that PACE is demonstrating the diverse viewpoints that educators hold about the profession.

And apparently we are not alone. As was pointed out in a recent Heartlander article non-union teacher groups are growing rapidly; yet the NEA lost 100,000 members last year alone. Even in forced-union states, where teachers are forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment, TIME magazine wrote an article about groups of teachers that are tired of the top-down, outdated thinking union leaders are imposing on the profession. Though they are forced to be in the union, these teachers are forming “insurgent” groups to try and usher in reform.

I recently received an email from Karen Steflik, a high school teacher and PACE member in Pueblo, CO. She mentioned how she was thrilled to have made the “informed decision to join PACE” based on her beliefs about education and reforming tenure, which she believes protects complacent teachers.

While most everyone is in favor of protecting an employee’s basic rights, Karen’s comments represent the understanding of thousands of teachers who, like me, believe the current system is broken and needs to change. Unfortunately, too many are given false information about potential reforms or feel intimidated to say what they really think.

The national non-union organization, the Association of American Educators (AAE), of which PACE is a state partner, recently released their 2011 annual survey which includes the opinions of teachers in all fifty states, including Colorado. The findings are not as surprising to those of us that work with teachers on a regular basis.

However, I think the average citizen that thinks the voice of union leaders is synonymous with the voice of the teachers will be surprised — pleasantly surprised. Of those surveyed, 74 percent do not support the policy of seniority based layoffs (also known as “last in first out” or LIFO), additionally 78 percent support alternative pathways to certification.

In last year’s survey 81 percent of teachers did not think that tenure was necessary. AAE is growing rapidly with thousands of teacher members across the country, and these are just a few examples of what they are saying.

The overall point I want to make is it’s tragic that too many people in the media and the public tend to lump teachers together as a group of narrow-minded, line-towing union workers when the truth is that teachers are some of the most dynamic and innovative academic professionals in the country.

Sadly, no one goes beyond the union leaders to ask the actual teachers. Whether it is about tenure reform, charter schools, compensation reform, or whatever you may be interested in; I encourage people in the media or the general public to skip over asking the union leaders or their hand-picked spokesmen, and instead walk down to a local school and ask a teacher. You might be surprised at what they are saying. It is their ideas that can bring about change for a profession and a system in desperate need of reform.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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