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Do Teacher Unions Have the Cooties?

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Each week it is my hope to bring to you a teacher's perspective, highlighting the latest issues in educational policy with anecdotes from the everyday classroom. Please join me, in the comments section, by sharing your personal stories that bring to life the unintended, or perhaps intended, consequences of education policy and reform.

Today one of my male students was trying to get around a female student in our class who is hearing impaired. She had her back to him, so she didn't see or hear him as he was shouting (at a painful volume), "move!" I went over and told him to simply tap her lightly on the back and showed him the sign for, "excuse me." He looked at me perplexed and said, "No touch... girl... yuck." What this student (who has limited expressive language skills) was clearly saying is, "She's a girl, she has the cooties, I'm not touching her."

We all remember "the cooties", and we expect this kind of behavior and name calling from young children. Millions of parents and teachers hide their laughter (at least I do) when the subject is perennially breached. As we engaged in a brief discussion of "the cooties" and treating each other nicely, I couldn't help but think of the national dialogue about teachers and their unions right now, and the very clear message that teacher unions "have the cooties".

The assault on teacher unions has reached a fever pitch. The conversation surrounding education policy, and millions in taxpayer dollars in the form of Race to the Top, is focused not only on attacking our unions, but weakening them, if not dismantling them altogether. When you get down to the heart of the issue, so-called reformers will center their argument on tenure and seniority rights. They will tell you that it is impossible to fire 'bad teachers'. Claiming teacher unions protect 'bad teachers', they will say that teachers think they have a right to their job and that causes them to be entitled and lazy. They argue there shouldn't be tenure and that instead, teachers should undergo rigorous evaluations, largely based on standardized test scores. They say these evaluations should be linked to merit pay and simplified firing.

Let me briefly explain what tenure and seniority rights really are: due process. Tenure and seniority rights are what prevent an educator from being arbitrarily fired. Tenure is simply a protection so that workers, in this case educators, have their rights protected, particularly their first amendment rights. Teaching is often a political act and it is a profession where moral imperative dominates your every decision. Without tenure, I could not advocate for my special needs students who are not getting the services they need. Without tenure, I could not join with parents to advocate with them for their children. Tenure, or due process, should be a right that all workers share. With this protection teachers have the ability to fight for change within their schools, communities, and country. We shouldn't focus our efforts on taking away due process, rather we should be focusing our efforts on making sure all Americans have some form of tenure in their workplace. Seniority rights are something all Americans should also share, after all, what other protection is there from discrimination?

I value accountability when the methods used to measure are holistic and reliable. I am happy to be evaluated to acquire my tenure and to retain it, but the current measures and the intentions behind the attack on tenure are what concern me. Teacher unions, and teachers for that matter, are not under attack because they underperform, after all, we are simply the technicians of the uniformed policies that are imposed upon us. Teachers do not create standards, mandated curriculum and testing. Teachers also have no decision making power in education policy. Teachers certainly are not a part of the tenure process; policy makers and administrators are. Teachers and their unions are under attack because they are the last road block in the road to privatization, because educating our youth and providing those who serve our youth with a fair wage, good working conditions, health care, and a pension (things that should be considered human rights) are expensive. In this country it always comes back to taxes and potential corporate profits. A tenure and seniority based system is more costly, but considering one of the most significant factors in student achievement, next to class size, is an experienced teacher, the system benefits children as well.

This is not to say that there are not "bad teachers" or that our system does not need reform. As a hard working and dedicated teacher, nothing infuriates me more than coming into contact with a less than stellar teacher. But, I shouldn't have to give my rights away because of a very small minority's incompetence. I am interested in reform. However, I seek real reform. Attacking teachers and their unions will not result in real reform.

Let's turn our sights not on those "wealthy middle class teachers, with their cushy jobs, who retire on pensions that are a fraction of their salary," instead, we should focus on our policy makers and the corporate interests that drive their decision making. Let's stop playing schoolyard games with teachers and their unions and get real. Teachers and their unions do not have 'the cooties', we simply have and want to keep what all workers in this country should have: fair wages, health care, protections from arbitrary firing, safe working conditions, and a reasonable pension so we can live and retire at a fair wage and age.

Our children deserve real reform right now! Write to your policy makers and demand:

- Smaller class sizes
- Public Schools that are Community Centers and Serve ALL Children
- More Teaching -- Less Testing
- Parent and Teacher Empowerment and Leadership
- Equitable funding for ALL schools
- Anti-Racist Education Policies
- Culturally Relevant Curriculum
- Expanded Pre Kindergarten and Early Intervention Programs