Sunday, February 27, 2011

What are we fighting for?

With all the talk these days about collective bargaining and union rights, I figured I would weigh in with my thoughts. In my state, Ohio, we are in the middle of a battle over Senate Bill 5 which would take away teachers' rights to collectively bargain over things like sick leave, personal leave, class size, caseloads, and other things that directly effect student learning environments. It also would base teacher raises and job retention on their students' test scores, among some other brilliant ideas. This bill not only effects teachers, but all public sector workers.

Arguments for the bill
These come mostly from conservative, wealthy, private sector workers who claim that their tax dollars are paying for union wage increases. (I'm in a union, and, last I checked, I still pay taxes.) They also claim that a merit-based pay system is what all private sector workers are paid on and that we, as union workers, should grow up and join the real world.

Proponents of this bill also claim that the elimination of collective bargaining will somehow allow "bad teachers" to be fired and replaced with "good ones." This smacks of company speak to me. I would define "bad teacher" as someone who is unfair, insensitive, uneducated, narrow-minded, and aloof toward students and other faculty. Some of these descriptors are difficult to measure and even harder to fire someone for. The proponents of SB5 define "bad teacher" as someone who's students' test scores do not match a goal that has been set by politicians who think they know very much about education because they simply went to school.

I would then define "good teachers" as the people who exhibit the opposite of the aforementioned  adjectives, in addition, I would say that good teachers have an innate capability to read the faces of 30 or so children to know who gets it, who doesn't, and who got beat up by their parents the night before and should probably be left alone to sleep on that desk because he will probably relive the same nightmare tonight. (By the way, those children will probably not be performing well on the state standardized test, and will then have a negative effect on that teacher's pay next year. This really has nothing to do with good or bad teachers, but I digress.) SB5ers define "good teacher" as someone who has successfully landed in a classroom where students care enough to choose the right answer from a group of 4 on a multiple choice test.

Firing a teacher is not as simple as firing, for example, an office worker. If someone fires an office worker, they clean out their desk, their co-workers pick up the extra work for a few days until a replacement is hired, and life continues. If a teacher is fired, as many as 150 students are left with a substitute for a few days. When a new teacher is hired, that person must then work to build the relationships and trust of colleagues, students, and parents; a process that takes months, if not years. At any rate, we all know that firing anyone, whether a public or private employee is never as simple as Donald Trump makes it look.

Senate Bill 5 would allow for the teachers who cannot get their students to pass a test to be fired. Unfortunately, the complex working environment that is a classroom is incomparable to many of the environments that the people who want to eliminate collective bargaining rights work in. I see 90 students daily in my classroom. That means that I deal with 90 growing brains and bodies; 90 13-15 year-olds who come from as diverse a background as you can imagine. I have students who have both parents at home, both parents have jobs, and both parents are educated and are actively involved in their child's education. I also have students who have not talked to either parent in years, either because they are both dead, incarcerated, don't care, or a combination of these. These students have witnessed human beings injure and/or kill each other. They have a family of relatives with labels like "half" and "step" before their titles. They come to school every day in spite of these factors, because school is the one place in the world they know they are safe, and where there are adults they can trust and look up to. As their teacher, I am responsible for all of their "success" on a test mandated by politicians who, for the most part, grew up in luxury, had a loving, supportive family, and have no clue how to identify with "the other half." I need them to understand the complex ideas laid out in the Declaration of Independence, and their consequences today, while also needing them to understand that they cannot socialize during class even if it is the only time they have to talk to peers all day. I need them to understand every human's inborn need for structure and rules even though they have grown up in a world of chaos and anarchy. How many of those in the private sector can say that the things they do on a daily basis have a direct effect on the attitude, mood, and well-being of 90 people?

And so you see
The legislation before the Ohio General Assembly is about so much more than collective bargaining and worker's rights. It is about understanding that my working environment is also my students' learning environment. Please understand that I'm not some union baby who is afraid I may lose my job because my union can't protect me after the passage of Ohio Senate Bill 5. I just want to be able to negotiate for the things I feel are necessary in my workplace/my students' learning place; something few people are familiar with today.

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