What came first, the teacher’s union or the unprofessional treatment of teachers? This rather interesting question was posed to us by the occupytheory.org team, and we thought about it and prepared a post for you. And it is worth saying that this is NOT a chicken and egg question. It is much easier. Many generations of teachers whose complaints had been ignored for years finally turned to unions for help. Unfortunately, the corrupting influence of power brought unions to their feet in a relatively short time.
My grandmother and great aunt were teachers in the early 1900s. They often complained that their education and training meant little in their professional lives. A school district would post their available jobs in the local paper and whoever would accept the position for the least pay would be hired. Skill, experience, and the academic progress of the students were of less importance than keeping costs down.
When I began negotiating teacher salaries in the early 1980s, the salary schedule included a salary block for teachers who had little or no formal education beyond high school. Once the unions began negotiating contracts, those teachers were grandfathered into the salary schedule.
In the 1900s and earlier, teachers were required to clean the school, stoke the wood/coal stove, pump water, write curriculum, and prepare individual lessons for students in grades one through twelve. Because curriculums focused on the most basic skills, this task did not require the research that writing curriculum requires today. To meet these responsibilities, teachers were expected to remain single and avoid pregnancy. In the early 1900s, teachers were dismissed when they married. Things improved. When my mother began teaching in the late 1950s, teachers were allowed to be married; but they were still expected to resign once they became pregnant. Many teachers avoided informing administrators until their pregnancies became obvious.
Before unions, teachers could be members of a professional organization that could negotiate salary and working conditions. Unfortunately, administrators were also members of the same professional organization. Because teachers had to work late correcting papers, planning lessons, changing bulletin boards, and meeting with parents, they could not consistently attend meetings. Administrators assumed leadership roles, negotiating their own salaries and working conditions making sure that men were paid more than women. Few improvements leading to equitable salaries for women or improved working conditions for teachers were made. Unions recognized these problems and offered a solution.
Initially, unions did much to improve the professional status of teachers. They improved consistency of instruction by requiring teachers to have college educations, to be licensed, and to be given the same status that college graduates in other professions with comparable levels of education enjoyed. Unfortunately, once the unions became politically powerful, they neglected to respect the political wishes of all of their members. They began using intimidation and insults to silence a significant number of their members. They traded the integrity of the profession for support from a political party that would protect their power. This situation angered many teachers who are grateful today that the unions will no longer be taking their money to support political policies which are detrimental to the academic success of students and to the professional standing of educators.
While unions did much to cause their own demise, they are NOT the only reason for academic decline in American schools. It is not the unions who have made social engineering and political indoctrination more important than academic achievement. The demand that children be free from stress, competition, mundane rules, and the effort to master basic skills in math and grammar did not come from unions. Those values were initiated by professors who infiltrated our colleges with the intention of indoctrinating society to accept collectivism. This change in values also comes from many parents who insist that teachers focus on “providing” children with self-esteem rather than assisting the child to develop confidence based on achievement. These concerns are documented in a myriad of resources including GOD AND MAN AT YALE by William F. Buckley, Jr., WITNESS by Whittaker Chambers, and a variety of other resources written during the late 1800s to the present.
Restructuring teacher unions could possibly enable teachers to take back their profession IF legislators understand that teachers must be empowered at the local level to make professional educational decisions appropriate for their students. Simultaneously, accountability programs that are comprehensive, objective, and free of political manipulation must be developed. To accomplish these necessary improvements for our students, teachers need support from the public.