Thursday, December 19, 2013

Union Leaders: View from the Cheap Seats

These are difficult days for members of teachers unions. Our national leadership has thrown their lot in with the CCSS crowd and added their (and therefor our) voices to the chorus of folks saying, "Hey, we might have banged CCSS up a bit taking it out of the package so fast, but with a little polish and proper care, it will make a great centerpiece for the living room."

They are dead wrong in this belief. That is not the issue. We're teachers. We deal with people who are wrong on a daily basis. The question is not "Are they dead wrong?" but "Can we work with them?"

I'm a practical person. I'm not a big fan of political purity tests, of demanding that a person be 100% in agreement with me or else be declared The Enemy. Every time a group I'm affiliated with throws someone out for expressing an opinion that "promotes disunity" or is one of those things "we just don't say here," I cringe. It's a terrible way to deal with humans and human complexity. Throughout history, people who have disagreed have worked together productively. Heck, our own Congress used to work that way.

So I don't need to hear my leadership say that they believe exactly what I want them to believe. But I need to know that I can work with them, that I can, to some extent, trust them.

As I've fallen down the twitterverse-blogoshere-facebook page rabbit hole over the past several months, it has been interesting to see how differently the two major presidents interact with teachers. It's rather a large contrast.

I am an NEA member, so AFT pres Randi Weingarten hadn't been on my radar much. I knew that she, like Van Roekel, frequently turned up in articles shilling for CCSS. But when I started in a-twittering (had an account for years, but never had anything to say-- now I have two accounts that I use daily), there she was. And I was impressed.

Weingarten is there all the time. And she engages with and responds to her critics, of whom there are many. And the thing about twitter is that it's a hard place to roll out a finely crafted PR piece. When you're responding within thirty seconds to someone who just called you a sell-out and a traitor, your response has to be pretty visceral. Weingarten-on-twitter is direct, plain, clear and open. She leaves the impression of being honest and forthcoming, not defensive and combative.

Now mind you, as far as CCSS goes, she hasn't changed my mind a bit. She thinks that CCSS can somehow be moderated and that it can somehow be surgically separated from the high stakes testing regimen. I think she's dead wrong on that. I think she's doing a giant misservice to her members by doing things like co-writing a pro-CCSS, anti-opposition letter to the governors. But I give her high props for actually, daily, regularly engaging the many members who want her to know that they think she's hugely mistaken. And I've come to believe that while she's pretty much completely wrong on how she's responding to CCSS, it's an honest wrong, a wrong that appears based in an actual concern for teachers and the profession. I'd be more impressed if what she was hearing changed her mind and she would put down the big mug of kool-aid, but I am impressed that she's at least listening. Maybe she's actually horrible. But that's not how she comes across.

Then there's my own union chief. Sigh. Dennis Van Roekel had lost most of my trust months ago. Hearing the "Well, if not CCSS, then what?" line from the NEA gathering said it all for me, and I've explored elsewhere why I think he needs to go. Nothing has happened then to change my mind.

NEA has not just cranked out the usual puff pieces about CCSS, but has actively campaigned for it with cooked poll numbers and flat-out lies. And I was kind of surprised to discover that Van Roekel's presence in the twitterverse is-- well, he has a carefully blocked profile that only allows a select few handchecked followers. He is following one person and hasn't topped fifteen tweets yet. This fits my personal experience-- I have never received an email response from Van Roekel (I hear that Weingarten answers hers pretty regularly).

From out in the cheap seats, dealing with NEA is like dealing with any other impersonal corporate structure. I suspect that the narrative of NEA leadership selling out to CCSS has traction in part because NEA leaders come off as the sort of people who would hang out with Gates and Duncan rather than actual classroom teachers.

NEA occasionally attempts to interface more organically with its members, but that usually results in ideas like the GPS network, a website/ghost town where conversations involve three people and advance at the rate of two posts a month.

Van Roekel also repeatedly apes the party line about CCSS being Just Swell if we could get corporate testing mitts off it. There's just not any reason to think that he believes it, or that he has any particular concern about what's happening in the trenches. Is he worried more about how trends in education affect teachers or more about how shifting tides affect NEA's political clout in DC? It certainly looks like the latter. Maybe he's actually wonderful. But that's certainly not how he comes across.

It's possible that, were I not just a rank and file teacher, and if I had closer access to the halls of power, I would see another side of these issues and realize a more comforting truth. But what I'm telling you is what I see from out in the cheap seats, and from out here Weingarten looks like a leader who has let politics sucker her onto the wrong path for making things better for her members, while Van Roekel looks like a corporate tool who is interested in his members only insofar as getting them to fall into line as he wishes gives him the political clout he's after.

Hey--- I could be totally wrong. But if I am, it's not up to me to fix it. Do not tell me that I would better understand if I got more involved in campaigning to be a super-secret sigma-12 decoder-ring level 42 national rep. I have a friend who does that-- I don't have that kind of time, and that's why I have union reps to handle the whole business for me (and I've paid my dues, including being a local president through a strike and tough negotiations, so I'm no slacker) so that I can get back to having a life.

No, if leadership wants members to get a certain impression, they need to communicate it-- and not with slick PR. Weingarten has the right idea-- actual communication with actual teachers even if they haven't been properly screened and vetted. Van Roekel either needs to come down out of his corporate tower, or (more likely) be replaced with someone who will.

These days I'm looking for national leadership that is ballsy, practical and, especially, open and honest with its members. I'm all too familiar with the POV that says rank and file need to be herded in the direction they need to go. But this rank (or maybe I'm a file) is real tired of being surrounded by my betters who know what I'm supposed to be doing. I don't need my leadership to be my puppet, but I don't have any desire to be theirs, either. I don't need them to consult me on every little thing, but I need to feel like my leaders are there to look out for me, not use me as cannon fodder. And most especially, I need leaders to finally develop some backbone and stand up to political monkeys, even if they are monkeys who have always been OUR monkeys. Stand up for us, even if it means making powerful Democrats sad.

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