First Person

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

This post is just one of many being published today as part of the #EDUSolidarity project, of which I am an organizer. After you have read this, please take some time to read the wide variety of posts that will be added during the day at


Right around the time I was elected as my school’s UFT Chapter Leader, my school hired a new principal.  He had taught history for 12 years and is married to an English teacher. He had spent the preceding year at my school as a principal intern, during which I came to know and respect him as a person and educator. When we sat down for our first formal meeting as principal and chapter leader-elects, the first thing he said was, “Steve, you’re a great teacher. So why would you want to be chapter leader?”

I have heard this question too many times.  It assumes the stereotype of the teachers union as home to the despondent, bitter, lazy, kid-haters who teach to get summers off. And I must admit, I was guilty of holding this prejudice to some degree when I became chapter leader.  While I, of course, wanted to take on the role to ensure the fair treatment of teachers at my school, a large part of my motivation was to slowly work to gain a voice within the UFT, so that a good teacher like me could displace an old and bitter one, in the hope that others would follow.  However, what I have discovered in my interactions with people within the UFT and at the various meetings I attend is exactly what is true of teachers I have met in my career: The overwhelming majority of people who step foot into a classroom want nothing more than to do right by their kids.

Now, there is certainly disagreement on how to do this. I know people who are great, award-winning teachers who have radically different pedagogical styles than I do. They might even do some things that I would counsel the teachers I mentor against doing. But different teaching styles are necessary, as they reach different students.  I would never want every teacher in the world to be exactly like me.

The same is true when it comes to educational policy. I only agree with the educational policies of the UFT slightly more often than I agree with the policies of the New York City Department of Education. I wouldn’t trust either to run schools without the checks and balances the other provides. There are times when change is a good thing, and sometimes that needs to be enforced from on high. There are also times when these “new ideas” are ridiculous and need to be stopped. There is a need for meaningful accountability for teachers. There are also times when the system acts out of expediency rather than in the best interest of students, and the union needs to be there to speak up for our students.

The area that the union is almost always right about, though, is insisting that teachers be treated as professionals. This means ensuring that we are compensated in such a way that allows one to teach, support a family, and retire. This means having meaningful, objective criteria for evaluation and layoffs that is not based on poorly constructed tests. And due to the nature of the job, this means we need tenure protection from arbitrary dismissal.

I work with a great teacher who nearly lost his job last year because students stole a copy of a grade-wide exam off his desk. I know someone in Virginia, where I started my career, who was falsely accused of sexual harassment by a student after she did poorly on an exam. I have seen teachers assigned classes for which they are neither certified nor trained to teach. I had parents calling for my dismissal my first year because I asked their children to write persuasive essays representing the opposite point of view on an issue they cared about.  Great teachers are so hard to produce and find that we need a system that ensures we never arbitrarily lose them.

More than anything, however, I need the protection of my union and my tenured due process rights to consistently improve and innovate as a teacher. I am a very good teacher right now by any measurable objective standard, including that of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards who certified me two years ago, as well as by the subjective account of anyone who has ever observed me.  On my best days, I am great and every year, there are more and more of these days.

But here’s why I need tenure to get better: I need to be able to try new things to better improve my students’ learning.  If I did the same thing this year that I did last year, my students’ growth would stagnate.  This means taking risks.

New things do not always go well; most of the new things I try work, but some don’t.  By being able to try new things, over time, I am constantly improving in my ability to serve my students, bringing me ever closer to the sustained greatness to which I aim.

If I had to worry about arbitrary dismissal as an “at-will” employee, I would not have tried many of the great things I do.  I would continue doing what I have always done because it is safe. I have written before that good teaching takes courage.  This is certainly the case, but seeking to improve as a teacher should never mean risking one’s job, which is exactly what I would be doing if I were still an at-will employee as I was in the right-to-work state of Virginia.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.