Friday, August 19, 2016

Do Rock Star Teachers Really Need A Union???

Raymond J. Ankrum, Sr., is a teacher-blogger who put in some years in the Baltimore school system and who now is working a charter gig. And in a recent post, he asks the question that lots of union critics think, but don't always have the nerve to articulate.

The question often comes from people not working in public education-- why do you need a union or tenure or a lock-step pay grid? Isn't all that stuff for the crappy teachers, to protect them from the consequences of their own crappiness? Wouldn't school districts do their best to hold onto super-duper rock star teachers and pay them super well?

That kind of kibbitzing is typical in every field that draws backseat drivers with no experience or expertise ("Doctor, why don't you just prescribe exactly the right dose of exactly the right drug the first time?"). But it's always a little bit of a surprise to hear it coming from teachers. At the risk of sounding like the aged fart that I am, I can't help notice that teachers who pose this rhetorical comment are most often "less seasoned" or "newly minted" or "young." Not that all young teachers have this issue-- the vast majority know better. But some still want to ask this question, so let me try to answer it.

First of all, the question presumes that the rock star teacher works for a rock star principal and a rock star superintendent. This is a large presumption. The rock star teacher may in fact be working for a complete Lawrence Welk administrator, a school leader who hasn't got a clue.

In fact, since school administrators these days turn over at a faster rate than teachers, chances are the rock star teacher is working for someone who had no hand in hiring her. I don't know that anyone has done the research (or could) but it would be interesting to see how many teachers are working for someone that didn't hire them in the first place. I'm going to bet that the percentage is huge. That means that even if the teacher is a rock star and the administrator is a rock star, the teacher was hired as part of a vision of the school that is no longer in play.

Oh, but excellence is excellence and anybody with half a brain knows a rock star when they see one. Sure. That's why all elections in this country are settled quickly and easily and everyone listens to the same music and watches the same movies and tv shows-- because excellence is something that we all totally agree on.

No, sorry, young rock star, but one person's rock star is another person's "Oh my God how can you listen to that dreck!!" Find me any awesome rock star teacher in the country, and I guarantee you-- no matter how beloved and rock starry and awesome that teacher is, we can find ten people who would say, "Yes, if I had the power, I would totally fire that teacher for being so awful." And sometimes those people pursue, and even acquire, that power.

Nor is excellence an immutable category. A rock star teacher may hit a rough patch for any number of reasons, from a person struggle to illness to existential crisis. Should a school help that flagging rock star through that patch, or just dump the teacher the moment she becomes less shiny? And many ordinary mortals are only rock stars a few days a week-- does that count?

And that's just all the disagreement about what constitutes excellence. That's before we even get to bad actors who want a teacher's hide because that teacher refuses to give Junior an A or let Junior start first string on the tiddlywinks team or because that teacher belongs to the wrong political party or the wrong church.

Or let's take the kind of case where a teacher's very rock starriness puts her on a collision course with administration, the case where the school is pursuing a course that is bad for students or a student, and the rock star tries to advocate for that student and is told to shut up or lose her job.

You, young rock star, may feel as if your professional awesomeness is a mighty shield, so powerful and strong that you don't need the protection of anything else. It may be pretty to think so, but history and reality are not on your side. In fact, your awesomeness and go-to-it-ness almost certainly will put you on a collision course with someone-- a parent, an administrator, a board member, or some other random actor-- and bring you to a moment when you'll want to have someone on your side.

The implication that the only teacher who run into trouble are the ones who deserve it is just wrong, like suggesting that Those People wouldn't have been stopped by the police if they hadn't been Up To Something. Sure, there are people who end up in trouble because they Really Screwed Up. But it would be a terrible mistake to assume that those people make up 100% of the conflicts. In this respect, people who argue that we don't need a union are like people who argue that we don't need public defenders for the court system.

The irony of the unions-protect-mediocrity argument is that it's actually the absence of a union that encourages mediocrity. When you're a teacher with no job protections and nobody to watch your back-- well, that's the time to keep your head and down and never, ever do anything that might make you stand out or draw attention. Ankrum winds back around to the idea that he wants teachers who give their all and don't just watch the clock (with the implication that such teachers are most likely found in a non-union charter). But I want teachers who can give their all and use every bit of their professional expertise without having to look over their shoulders every five minutes.

Is the union, particularly in large urban settings, its own sort of monstrous bureaucratic institutional mess? Sure. The union grows into a mirror of the district that houses it, and we end up with a complicated struggle. But to imagine that rock star teachers are so protected by their rock star powers that no unions are ever needed is reckless, foolish, and in some cases, seriously egotistical. Every rock star may not call upon the union (though many will), but the mere fact of the union's existence and the work rules that it supports will make it more possible for the rock star to be a rock star. To imagine otherwise is to be a carousel pony imagining that if you could just get unhooked from the carousel and get this big pole out of your back, you would breeze right past all these other mediocre ponies. Once it happens, you suddenly realize how much you needed the pole to stay upright and moving forward.


  1. When I first entered the profession from my former career as an engineer, I thought exactly this same thing--I will totally rock this job, so why would I ever need union protection? Well I have rocked this job for 22 years now and without union protection, I would have lost my job a dozen times for all the reasons you articulate.

    I think the biggest misunderstanding people outside public education have that leads them to think that only crappy teachers need unions is the assumption "that the rock star teacher works for a rock star principal and a rock star superintendent." In fact, this is probably very seldom the case. Based on my experience and that of my friends, most administrators are pretty clueless and would not be able to hold their jobs managing a professional team anywhere else. They are typically neither strong educational leaders nor good organizational managers. They just saw a way to get out of the hard work of classroom teaching and get a sweet raise at the same time. These are not people who know how to support and retain a quality staff.

    1. You are so right, Dave! And for those of us who are less than rock star quality, but certainly more than adequate at what we do, the contract protections we have do allow us to do what is right for our students.

  2. Look what happens to actual rock stars (the musical kind). We snap them up when they're 15 or 13 or worse and we shove them in this box ("innocent young Christian girl/boy", for example, a la Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber). We send them on 50 cities in 60 days type tours, not to mention fan appearances, autograph signings and, of course, they're still doing studio recording. We shower them with money and fame and adulation until it all goes to their heads and they start getting in trouble with the law or stripping on stage or whatnot and then we turn on them and hate them and publicly skewer them. But hey, I guess it's all okay because they have all the money they'll ever need for a lifetime. Unless they blow it on drugs or women or whatever. Same thing with rock star athletes, many of whom are almost physically incapacitated by the time they're 25 and in many cases we don't even pay them that well up front (think Olympic athletes).

    Anyone who doesn't understand why rock stars should have unions has never been a rock star.

  3. Also, I want to point out that rock star teachers are shameless self-promoters. I'm always wary of someone who claims awesomeness in such a soft science as teaching. Give me a person who grinds every day and cares about kids over anyone with magical lesson plans.

    The administrator turnover part is so true as well. I'm about to have my 8th different evaluator in 20 years. They all want something different. I went from someone who thought direct instruction was the preferred way to teach to someone who was more collaborative driven.

    Plus, many times, I and other teachers have stood up for our students to the great displeasure of our leadership. That extra layer of job security allows teachers to exercise their conscience instead of being powerless against their higher-ups.

    With charters, at-will employees must cave to whatever leaders want. So, a compliant staff is better but for what group? (We know the answer to that.)

  4. "The rock star teacher may in fact be working for a complete Lawrence Welk administrator, a school leader who hasn't got a clue."
    I totally agree with your target in this op-ed; however, I have gigged with a couple of Lawrence Welk's alums (lack of a better term) & good-old LW was not clueless, he got great marks for treating his UNION musicians well and targeting what his audience wanted.

    Your point about the shifting, often shithead admins is great. I'm into my 34th year of stamping out ignorance. I've taught in 5 schools but I've worked "under" 11 principles/headmasters. In the interest of giving credit to my great bosses,I will list them: Davy Cohen (Mack & Dave's, OK not a school, but a GREAT boss) in Huntington WV, Frank Hassell (Allendale-Fairfax HS SC), McGowen (Cardinal-Newman HS Columbia SC), Dr. Ben Nesbit (Spring Valley HS Columbia SC), Dr. Ron Cowden (Also Spring Valley & he hired me at Dutch Fork in Irmo SC), Dave Davies (Deerfield-Windsor School Albany GA). And I'll give a shout out to one of the assistant admins at Spring Valley that was great, Angela Quick.

    Now my father had a great saying: "If you can't say anything nice, say it anyway." If Peter will allow, I'll name the stupid, clueless & bullies so others can avoid being anywhere near them.

  5. I've never once heard anyone complain that pro athletes are represented by a union.

    Why should pro teachers be any different?

  6. Excellent essay but there is one assumption that dangerous to make; that any union has ONLY it's dues payer's best interest in mind and that union leadership cannot be bought. United Teachers Los Angeles has co-operated in getting rid of about 5,000 older teacher including rock stars and they actively support the charter take over of the L.A. Unified School District although they claim otherwise.

  7. I beg any teacher who doesn't think they need a Union to go work for a Charter. Watch as they kick out all the Special Needs kids, kids with behavior problems and kids with low test scores. Watch as they put you in positions that you are not qualified for, ignore state safety laws (and when the sh.. hits the fan, you will get blamed). Make sure you go to the same church and like the same sports teams as your Admin, or your career could be over before it starts. And the PAY...If Charters are SO MUCH BETTER, why do their teachers make about 55% of Union Teachers with no retirement, no benefits and no job protection?

  8. I read Ankrum's article. Apparently, he's very proud that he and other "rock star teachers" won't get fired any time soon, but uninterested in the fact that lack of union representation will degrade pay and benefits for himself, and all other teachers, "rock star" and otherwise, everywhere. More job security and bargaining power equals higher compensation. If you don't know that, you don't know anything about Economics or unions. Ankrum thinks that the only issue that unions influence is whether teachers get fired or not. I'm glad he wasn't bargaining on my behalf.