Thanks for the Weekend, Unions!
Three day weekends like Labor Day remind me how much I appreciate weekends. I often overlook the blessing of a weekend and the importance of taking a break because quite honestly sometimes our weekends are just as busy as the week. Union activism in the United States helped extend the weekend beyond Sunday. If you are looking for a good resource about the weekends check out Wonderopolis's Post. It is such a great resource for all kinds of wondering :)
The following is an excerpt from, "The Activist Teacher" chapter I wrote for Sonia Nieto's Why We Teach Now book. At the time of publication, I did not work in the school district without a Union. I am fortunate to return to a district with a Union. However, after this school year our contract ends and so does our union in the formal sense. I still feel the pain in my heart I did the night I ran up the steps of Wisconsin's Capitol as Act 10 passed in our congress. I must also admit. I have one foot (possibly more) out of the classroom. I am teaching part-time to focus more time on Books del Sur and our 16-month-old son. I am very passionate about the work I do with Books del Sur and it aligns so well with the work I do in the classroom. While running a small business has its challenges, one thing is for sure it's not as heartbreaking. Books del Sur focuses on the positive aspects of education. I get to focus on increasing students the Spanish language through amazing literature. I don't have to focus on.. well all of the things my chapter starts with. And here they are...
I teach in spite of
- continually being required to measure students’ deficits rather than their assets
- the increasing standardized testing
- the misappropriation of school funding
- decisions regarding education that support politicians, not students
- a one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum
- the adoption of mega-corporate curricula, and
- the dismantling of Wisconsin's teacher unions
Early in 2011, Wisconsin's newly elected legislature introduced some devastating legislation. I was working as a District Professional Development Teacher Leader. It had been a difficult move for me to make for many reasons, but mostly because I believe the classroom teacher plays the most important role in education. Before taking the position, I sat through many disconnected and disengaging professional development sessions. In the fall of 2010, when I had the opportunity to be a teacher leader at the district level, I was hopeful that I could bring the voice of the classroom teacher to the district office and make real change. After only three months, my optimism had faded and was quickly crushed when Wisconsin's legislature proposed Act 10, a law that would eliminate teacher unions in the state.
My parents were both lifelong educators. My father was a high school Social Studies teacher for 32 years and my mother was a high school biology teacher and guidance counselor for 27 years. My father was also very active in their teacher union serving as a negotiator for many years, and also held terms as President and Vice President. It was not until Act 10 was proposed that I really understood what it meant to be in a union. My father shared with me that when he started working for the school district, their contracts were only a page long. Some people – my close family members included – think union contracts are all about padding teachers’ pockets. And although it is true that I have really straight and healthy teeth because my parents had good dental insurance, it is also true that my parents have Masters' Degrees and many credits beyond their Master’s Degrees. They are dedicated professional learners and if we value their role in our society, then we need to compensate them. My father also shared with me that he was commonly frustrated negotiating contracts alongside elementary school teachers because they continually shortchanged themselves and didn’t want to rock the boat or ask for too much.
As an educator and the child of educators, I believe Act 10 was a blatant attack on my profession and our teaching culture. After a few weeks of educating the public and protesting after work, my union decided to have a “sick out.” It was a painful decision for many of us because we knew it would adversely affect the children we were ultimately trying to protect. The first day we called in sick, I anxiously waited for the news to see what would happen. Since my principal was also my best friend, I agonized over her having to manage all our students with limited help. Fortunately, the teachers’ united efforts were so successful that schools were forced to close. This was what we wanted. We wanted people to feel the blow of schools not functioning because we knew that the impact of Act 10 would have harsh consequences on schools, students, and ultimately our society.
We continued to call in sick for the next two days. I did not stay home and eat chips and watch daytime TV. Instead, I walked around the Wisconsin State Capitol, sometimes with my sign and sometimes without it. I sang solidarity songs. I chanted with my union brothers and sisters. I cried as Firefighters with their bagpipes walked through the Capitol building with signs that said: “We Support Teachers’ Right to Organize.” Moments like those, as well as marching with Reverend Jesse Jackson, reminded me that our protests were not just about Wisconsin teachers, but about workers’ rights throughout our country. The intensity of these days was similar to the World Trade Organization Protests in Seattle I had participated in ten years earlier. But that was only for one day and this was so much more personal. I felt support from people around the world. I remember reading on the chalkboard outside of Ian’s Pizza Restaurant the many different countries people had called from to donate money for pizzas to nourish the protestors. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine as well as many other musicians played live shows to show their support. A writer friend in Los Angeles messaged me, “Fight on, Heather! Your union brothers in LA are behind you!” Those things encouraged me.
However, the pressure from the community for us to return to work increased. People were tired of rearranging their lives to care for their kids (I found this ironic), and we were feeling that the passage of Act 10 was imminent. I was willing to make monetary sacrifices; however, I did not want to give up my right to organize. We returned to work, and one evening a few weeks later I received a text from a friend that Act 10 was going to be voted on within the hour. At this time security was heightened so we had to wait in line to go through metal detectors. It felt like an eternity. Once I finally passed security, I ran up the stairs of the capitol to the congressional chambers as the chants of protesters became increasingly louder. When I reached the mass of people outside the chambers, it was too late: the legislators were being booed as they exited. Tears streamed down my face. I couldn’t boo, I couldn’t speak. I was devastated.
It has been just over three years (2011) since the passage of ACT 10. Our public schools are still standing and on the surface, things are not very different from three years ago except for the one-page contract I signed this year when I moved to a new school district – similar to the one my dad signed more than 40 years earlier when he started teaching.
Read the rest of my chapter and many other brilliant teachers' chapters in Why We Teach Now, Edited by Sonia Nieto Pub Date: December 2014, 288 pages http://store.tcpress.com/0807755877.shtml