Schools and Politics: Let Us Now Praise on Labor Day

Summary: Around Labor Day, a salute to teachers and their fellow travelers, and a review of the nature of teachers unions, professional or labor, within the current political context.

Though past Labor Day, I am belatedly inspired to echo the spirit of E.J. Dionne’s recent column that appeared in the Seattle Times Opinion Page this Labor Day, “Remembering Those Who Go To Work.”

Let us remember teachers and school employees in this mix, though working people of uncertain identity. Part labor (since many are unionized), and part professional (but often not treated as such), school folk I think are a cultural hybrid, and so undergo a kind of chronic identity crisis.

To the praise.

I like the independent vigor of teacher thought, though too often it surfaces only in bitching behind closed doors, because schools reinforce teachers’ adherence to directive over their self sustained thought. I am reminded of Ben Shahn’s proclamation: “You have not converted a man (or a woman) because you have silenced him.”

I like working with school types for the daily exchanges, the support, the laughs, but probably most of all for the sense of camaraderie in common purpose – doing right by individual kids, and by the collective kid.

In my school, I am continually impressed by teachers’ insight into kids they teach, and their thoughtfulness in expressing it when called upon to do so, however obscure these exchanges are to the outside world, which too often denigrates their author’s worth.

To wit: The instructional aide who recognizes that a new student she is testing has revealed unexpected deficits in her skills, and has taken the initiative to make sure others of us mark her finding. The teacher who is willing to flex for one more kid in his class, because he knows it will produce a credit the kid must have, even though he is taking on a greater load. The administrator (yes, they count, too, and also teach and labor to do well by kids) who acknowledges the complexity of a decision facing us and will partner in making it.

The group of teachers that pours enthusiasm into a program welcoming incoming freshman, because they like kids, want to make them welcome, and see them succeed. The teacher a girl returns to, because finally she has found someone who can help her speak math and understand it. A teacher whose strict and soft understanding reels a troubled student into school. Another teacher, both demanding and understanding, who has a record of taking basically lazy, but low skilled kids and turning them into significantly more successful students.

These are images from the schoolhouse, folks, all good works, and just a small fraction of the stories. Labor Day is to honor good work. Honor these.

Increasingly, Labor Day salutes such as Mr. Dionne’s also mark the contemporary diminished clout of the union movement, a decline spurred by profound shifts in the labor intensive industries upon which labor rose during the twentieth century. Those middle class wages have become hard to find, in the face of hungry workers in rising third world economies.

Moreover, a narrative spewing from the right of the political spectrum, well funded, relentless, and simply minded, has too successfully painted union organization as one of our economy’s primary problems. It seems if only unions (and government regulations) were to get out of the way, all would be hunky dory and everyone would be floating on easy street.

Without mulling all the complexity of our economic woes, suffice it to say that all such noble wrapping in the alleged greater good camouflages a steely aim on capital’s part to trap further riches. I would argue the greater good lies in a reduction of the gap between rich and poor, and a protection against the excesses of some markets, such as those excesses within financial markets in recent years that have significantly contributed to the economic hole in which we currently find ourselves.

This is not to say that some regulation should not be streamlined, nor that union thinking doesn’t need to enter the realities of a 21st century economy, nor even that entitlements and how we pay for them need not be examined in order to put the economic ship of state on the proverbial even keel. But subtleties are not plentiful in some philosophies on the right, and so would simply swap one poison for another, much as a Republican president invaded Iraq on muddied grounding.

I’m in danger of digressing too far. Teachers’ unions as labor unions. Now that’s a topic. I currently have more questions in mind than ideas to propose.

Are teachers’ unions labor unions? Or are they professional associations? Are teachers skilled laborers, or are they professionals? Clearly there is a “profession” to teaching, both in training and in intellectual demand, but the model of contracting for wages and benefits seems to echo more that of labor.

What other organizations in what other fields are similar to this mix, and what can we learn from them? For that matter, what is the difference between teachers on one side and doctors and lawyers on the other as acknowledged professionals who have associations that advocate for their members? How are their models of association different from that of teachers? For example, do some enter collective bargaining with an employer or group of employers? Why or why not?

Is the difference between teachers and other professional types simply a matter of cultural power and respect? If so, why do teachers in Japan and other countries whose test scores outstrip ours enjoy a cultural respect teachers in the United States do not? Is there a positively reinforcing cycle in Japan where schools are successful and teachers revered while a negative reinforcing cycle in the US has the opposite effect? If so, where and how do we alter the feedback loop? Why do we pay our doctors and lawyers so much more? Whatever the answer to the latter, is the same true of Japanese and other more successful educational models?

To truly respect teachers and those who serve with them is to ask why there seems to be an unimaginative lethargy to the collective as we face enormous changes in the world toward which we are pointing our students. We can’t keep doing everything the same, and we cannot leave the argument to those who scream the loudest and know less than we about the business of educating kids. But too often we seem on the defensive, protecting turf, rather than taking the offensive with fresh ideas. That’s not good. On this issue, I believe, will turn our question of labor vs. professional.

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