Teachers’ unions have been getting bad press in the media in the past few years. The media has blamed them for protecting “bad” teachers and ignored their contribution to the stability and quality of our public education system. So what do teachers’ unions do and why does it matter?
If you went to public school, think back to all the good teachers you had. Some of them were probably new, but most had probably been in the education system for a while. During the first difficult year, teachers are still learning the ropes and tend to make all sorts of mistakes. It takes practice before teachers can even get kids to behave. After a couple of years, when good teachers have hit their stride, they make it look so easy.
Once good teachers have mastered their profession, what should school districts do – keep them or fire them? Keep them, of course. But there’s a financial incentive to fire them or lay them off. And that’s where teachers’ unions come in.
Teachers’ unions protect the jobs of our quality, experienced teachers through seniority. Labor contracts and state law specify that when layoffs happen, the teachers with the most seniority are the last ones to be laid off. This means that teachers can go into teaching as a profession, suffering through the first difficult years with the promise of a stable job later on. And this means that our schools will be filled with more experienced teachers, who can collaborate with one another in the long term and build a true school community.
Lately, the media been attacking seniority, ignoring its benefits and focusing on the “bad” teachers that seniority rules protect. It is certainly true that some teachers have been in the profession too long. But it’s not because of seniority rules. Labor contracts actually do have provisions for teachers to be put on probation and let go. Often it’s the principal or school district officials who protect the jobs of teachers who are not capable of doing their jobs.
Teachers’ unions protect the quality of our education in other ways too. Unions negotiate pay, medical insurance, retirement, and sick days – all the things that make teaching a more attractive job. Without these protections, who would enter the profession? The most qualified – or the most desperate?
And teachers’ unions also negotiate mentoring and professional development. These things can actually turn a “bad teacher” into a “good” one. Teaching isn’t a job you can just jump into – it is a profession with a steep learning curve, and teachers need all the help they can get.
So let’s stop taking teachers’ unions for granted. We owe teachers an enormous debt for the time and energy they put into our educations and our children’s educations. It’s time to pay it back.