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Voices: The importance of a collective voice

Douglas County high school teacher and proud union member Traci Mumm says news accounts of the Chicago teachers strike have reinforced mistaken stereotypes about unions.

The Chicago teachers’ strike has once again brought teachers’ unions to the public’s attention. The pictures and information out of Illinois are stereotypical, with mobs of people holding signs and shouting at one another. It seems that many people think teachers’ unions do this – they shout and picket and demand – because this is what the news shows us.

I am a Republican, tax-paying, fiscally-conservative, public school teacher and I proudly belong to the American Federation of Teachers. I grew up with an anti-union father and listened to anti-labor rhetoric all my life.

For years, I thought I knew about unions and their members because I watched the news and listened to my family. It was not until I became what others have called a “union thug” that I really understood the importance of a collective voice.

There exists an assumption that schools are rife with bad teachers and the union is protecting them. We think this because we all had teachers we believed to be “terrible.” Some probably were. In junior high, I had a “should-have-retired years ago” worksheet teacher who sat at his desk and sometimes snored.

I also had some teachers I didn’t understand, didn’t find funny or didn’t connect with. They weren’t bad, I just didn’t like them. When we think about all of the bad teachers currently in our system, we should perhaps consider that most are working hard and teaching kids. As for the truly bad teachers, there are systems in place for removing them. There is no tenure and the union is not keeping them in the school. Bad teachers benefit no one.

In Douglas County, the school board has severed a once cooperative relationship with the AFT. Board members claim that by not recognizing the union, they have opened a new channel of communication with individual teachers.

In this new era, they say, teachers are free to negotiate their own salaries, their own relationship with the district, their own working conditions. Without the old union-supported salary matrix, they say, teachers can earn extravagant bonuses by teaching better.

Yet, I have heard of teachers being turned away when they have asked to come into the district office to talk about a new salary. And the amazing bonuses? Well, the school district is still working on that … they say they will get back to us.

We want our medical providers to have a voice in the ongoing conflict between healthcare bureaucrats and physicians. We don’t want insurance companies deciding our medical treatment options because we trust our doctors, not our insurance actuaries. Why, then, are we content allowing school board members to dictate curriculum, standards and other educational issues?

When teachers had a collective voice, we spoke and were heard. Together, we were a unit and had a seat at the education table. Now, the board finds us easy to ignore and chastise. Without our unity, we are scattered while we watch our school district disintegrate.

The teachers’ union is not perfect, but what is? Without it, teachers become easily-dismissed pawns who are supposed to shut up and take what they’re given. With it, they are a presence with a voice and something to say.

We must decide whether we want our kids in schools where lawyers, engineers and real estate investors make the education decisions in spite of what the teachers recommend. Without a return to recognizing teachers in this district, this is what we have.

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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