November 2, 2011

Questions for 21st Century Teacher Union Members and Their Leaders

Marc Comtois

Celine Coggins, founder and CEO of Teach Plus, has some questions for 21st Century teacher union leaders. Please read carefully before assuming the worst (regardless of which "side" you are on the issue).

What would it mean to put an emphasis on the New Majority? After almost a half-century of baby-boomers as the dominant demographic in the teaching force, we've reached a tipping point whereby those with fewer than ten years classroom experience are now the majority in teaching. These are the teachers who are the future of the profession. These are the teachers who will determine whether the union will remain a force. Yet, they are wildly underrepresented in holding union offices and participating in union activities. Successfully getting newer teachers involved in the union would almost certainly lead to challenging debates within union halls. Union leaders must judge for themselves whether they are up for that challenge and what the future might hold if they are not.

What would it mean to put an emphasis on high-performers? To start, this bias would lead to a serious, quantified look at the proportion of time the union as an organization spends on (A) grievances and the due process rights of those with questionable records relative to (B) cultivating leadership and growth opportunities for others in the teaching force. That would open up a conversation about whether the organization could put more time and effort into those in category B. Quite possibly, the answer would be no. There may be no room to shift focus to better address the interests of high-performers. All of the other things the union does may be too important. In that case, though, the natural next question would be: how might the union benefit from an outside partner like Teach Plus to address an unmet need among an important subset of teachers?

What would it mean to put an emphasis on solutions-oriented teachers? At Teach Plus, we often hear from young teachers that they see their union as--to borrow a phrase that doesn't fit exactly--the party of "no." They see a need for reform but don't identify their union as taking a leadership role in reform. In many cases, this reputation is undeserved. In every city where Teach Plus has had a role in helping young teachers get involved in policy decisions, it has been with the collaboration of the union. Yet, this impression is pervasive. How do we get to a place where the accomplishments of the AFT Innovation Fund and the NEA's efforts to close the achievement gap are more visible than the negative stereotype of the ever-complaining teacher down the hall who is very active in the union? I don't know; but I know Teach Plus has been able to build that type of community on a small scale.