Behind The Scenes, Teachers Unions Attempt To Make Online Crisis Schooling Worse

Behind The Scenes, Teachers Unions Attempt To Make Online Crisis Schooling Worse

In a crisis, flexibility is king, especially for those in the classroom. But union bureaucracy makes it impossible to innovate.
Charissa Daman and Cheri Gensel
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As public school teachers with a combined 33 years of experience, we know we’re supposed to be “union strong” and never air unions’ dirty laundry. But the coronavirus crisis has pitted unions against teachers, students, and administrators who just want to teach and learn.

Our fellow teachers have gone above and beyond to ensure students don’t slip through the cracks during quarantine. We’ve seen teachers furiously posting to message boards and offering one-on-one assistance to students via videoconferencing.

From unions, however, we’ve seen just two things: pointless obstruction of basic student-teacher interaction and furious pro-union PR campaigns to avoid getting blamed for it.

The Wrong Focus from Teachers’ Unions

It looks like the slick marketing is working. In Marijke Hecht’s recent article about inequities and failures in Pittsburgh public schools, for example, she points out that students have been denied remote learning opportunities and have lost precious weeks of learning time because of outdated protocols. She’s right: During a crisis, schools must remain flexible, or they’ll fail.

But it’s surprising Hecht did not name the primary culprit for this institutional ineffectiveness: the teachers’ union. Throughout the coronavirus quarantine, teachers’ priorities have been keeping their students on track and creating innovative ways to learn, but the union has focused on warning teachers against straying one inch from their contracts, including initial bans on e-learning.

This isn’t just a complication caused by regulations. That might be understandable. Unions were wary of remote learning from the start because they feared families might like it and switch to cyber charter schools. They’ve said as much in their emails to teachers, as if we would share their fear of families making their own educational choices.

We both left our teachers’ union because of issues like this. The intimidating emails sent during stay-at-home are nothing new to us, although employees in any other profession would be shocked to receive them: “Do not try to teach any new material or post any videos on the online portal. We know who you are. We’ll find out, and you will hear from us.”

Why We Teach

If you think we’re exaggerating, you’ve probably never been a teacher who tried to innovate on behalf of your students.

One of us teaches Advanced Placement courses, the only subject in which students will still face a standard assessment at the end of the semester. It’s an objective measure of student achievement that will affect their college opportunities and future. But our union representative barred any contact with students for two weeks during quarantine; new contractual terms allowing online education had to be negotiated first. Meanwhile, the students were on their own to prepare for the looming exam.

We became teachers for the same reason every other teacher does: We love learning and want to pass that love on to our students. Even in crises, teachers want to continue educating as much as possible, but we’re being snagged on outdated contracts that unions force us to swear allegiance to, even when those contracts ban distance learning and other outside-the-box solutions, causing students to miss weeks or months of valuable education time.

Every situation and learning environment is unique, so why should every teacher be forced to follow decades-old rules? It makes no sense, but that’s how teachers’ unions think and work. To innovate in any way, you must have their permission. Politically motivated control prevents us from escaping the cookie-cutter rules that stifle our ability to tailor teaching to students’ needs.

The most insulting part is when the union acts like it’s doing us a favor by “protecting” us from teaching. When schools submitted their online education plans to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, districts across the state had disparate approaches to complying with special education laws. We were told our plan was the “safest” possible, meaning it minimized learning to avoid running up against legal issues. However, many districts across Pennsylvania had expansive plans that didn’t restrict teachers.

Frustrations of Micromanagement

Meanwhile, teachers’ unions have managed to secure nothing but positive PR — to the extent that even critical articles like Hecht’s make everything the fault of administrations, while unions aren’t even mentioned. Critiques of administrators have it all backward. They conveniently forget who’s wagging the dog. Teachers’ unions control this narrative with a constant stream of marketing emails, ads, articles, and mailers about how great they are.

The end result for us teachers? Instead of fulfilling our purpose in entering this profession, to help kids learn, we now must stand aside while we wait for a massive private corporation, the union, to micromanage how we do it. Who made them the boss?

If we want to prepare our education system to handle a crisis, we educators need a little more local control and space to innovate. We can’t maximize our students’ potential, or our potential as teachers, with the union breathing down our necks.

Cheri Gensel is a high school teacher from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area. Charissa Daman is a former high school teacher from the Pittsburgh area.
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