Every year at about this time, our NJEA cards arrive in the mail. Those of us who teach in this state know that NJEA stands for New Jersey Education Association; however, no matter what state you’re in, if you are an employee of a public school, I hope you have an association – a union – to back you up.
Here’s some of what we didn’t have years ago, before unions: a dedicated lunch hour. A daily untouchable prep. Somewhere to go with a problem, an unjustness, an issue that just couldn’t be resolved on your own – and that ultimately, if all else failed, could become a grievance. You could be let go for writing in different colored chalk (‘too hard to read’), choosing a book more on line with your students’ ability level than the book known by your supervisor, or going to a union meeting. You had to fight on your own for adequate benefit or parity in your raises – if you got any raises at all.
Of course, these days, it is your own choice to take that lunch or give up that prep, and I – and many of my colleagues – have given them up many times. As our curriculums grew heavier, and the internet added a level of oversight and responsibility we never had before, it became easier, many times, to just eat at our desks; 10 minutes of conversation in the halls would have to do. And as we notice student struggles, it sometimes is worth inviting students into our room during a prep or two to help them make it through the day.
Of course, for nontenured staff, the association holds out a promise that cannot yet be filled. Theoretically, you’re covered, but the nontenured credo is all about not making waves. In New Jersey, it takes four years and one day to make tenure now (up from three years and a day several years back). Some districts give you a pen or a paperweight in recognition of this milestone; for many years, my district gave out small engraved clocks (that stopped working within a few days). But the magic of tenure is the full power of the association behind you. Even if you never need it, it’s good to know it’s there.
No, education associations aren’t perfect. Some are simply not strong enough, in terms of maintaining the contract or supporting staff. And while staff members are not supposed to complain about other staff members to administrators – as this is often about personal vendettas or simple dislikes – it happens. Of course, on the other side of the coin, sometimes the staff members in your room aren’t doing their jobs – or much of anything at all – or you are in the room of an educator who is mean to children, and you are powerless to do much. In both cases, it’s difficult to keep silent.
Even there, though, there are ways out. The association can be a go-between, trying to resolve issues in private meetings, and, hopefully, observations will pick up on some issues. Of course, there’s always staff requests for a new position or building, with the real reason hidden.
The truth is, our benefits have gotten a kick in the pants over the last decade, and our salaries haven’t moved enough to make up for it, and we’re working second jobs and at our computers until late at night to support our students . . . and on and on. Our unions are trying, but they can only do so much.
Our younger staff doesn’t always get it, either. They come to workplaces where associations are already established, and they don’t always come to the meetings. Those with children to pick up often must leave school as soon as they can, but they’re not worrying about the future, because they figure someone else will do it. This is a bit of a generalization, as there are many who do get involved, but often because they had family in unions – not just teachers – or have a teaching partner who is very involved and takes them under their wing.
There’s a lot more to be said here. Studies have been in the efficacy of teachers’ unions, especially in states where they have outlawed or where striking is illegal. And there’s a dark grey area in terms of charter schools, whose money comes from the public sector but where unions cannot exist.
Before I was a teacher, I worked in many places without unions where it was dog- eat-dog, where I had to fight for my raises, and I wouldn’t ever want to go back. No, unions aren’t perfect, but I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
Many years ago, our association president would essentially hunt us down in our rooms if we weren’t leaving the classroom to go to the lunchroom for our contractual lunchtime. As she would say, “We fought for you to have this lunch, and if you don’t take it today, and tomorrow, and next week, they will take it away. Don’t think they aren’t noticing.”
It is your prerogative, of course. And I know how hard it is to do sometimes. But if you’re reading this, plan on leaving your room for lunch this week – even if you’re just going into a fellow educator’s room to eat together. Go to an association meeting. And put your union card someplace where you will see it as you’re rifling through your wallet now and again. It took a long time to create.