Monday Mythbust, Myth #1: Unions Only Benefit Teachers

Oh hey, didn’t see you there, hidden behind the ridiculously large umbrella in my cocktail drink.  I’m just kicking back and relaxing. After all, that’s what my union contract is for, right? Making sure we teachers don’t have to work too hard! Haha!

Of all the myths about teachers, this is one of the most annoying ones. Why is it so hard for people to see that establishing a professional learning environment for teachers is a benefit to students? The fact is, my teacher’s union contract is full of language designed to ensure a safe and equitable educational community for the kids. You know, the ones we’re there for?

What’s more, (and I’ll delve into this further at a later date) union contracts provide a little thing called recourse. So if my principal turns out to be a sleaze who wants me to ignore the fact that I’ve got 3 more special needs kids in my room than I’m supposed to have without a teacher’s aid in place (in order to provide them the individualized attention they need), I can say something about it and my contract and my union will back me up. Without this, all the lovely rules that exist in order to make education equitable are really meaningless. The rules don’t stand up without something there to support them. In the case of teachers, it’s the union. Without a third-party between teachers and administrators there is no guarantee that the laws set forth to provide the best possible education to our children will be adhered to.

So here they are in no particular order, my top 5 union regulations that provide huge benefits to children. Teachers, can you think of any more?

1) Class size:

Parents in posh suburban communities love to brag about the small class sizes in their public schools. Overcrowded classrooms are a perennial hot button issue. Nobody wants their kid shoehorned into a crowded classroom where they won’t get the individualized attention they need to learn. So how do we make sure that doesn’t happen? Let me crack open my handy-dandy teacher’s contract, negotiated for me by yes, my union and see what it has to say about this. In fact, I’ll copy and paste the text from my own contract word for word:

“It is agreed that as soon as practical, considering availability of qualified personnel and
suitable classroom space, the maximum number of pupils per teacher will be as follows:
l. Elementary Schools
Kindergarten 20
Grades 1 through 3 25
Grades 4 through 8 25
2. Senior High School
Science Laboratory 20
Shop/Career and Technical Education Lab 20
Academic subjects 30″

2) Is your kid one of the estimated 14 percent of American children with special needs? The union contract protects them too:

There is detailed language in my contract regarding special ed classroom size:

Self-contained and/or substantially separate classes at no time shall exceed the
number set by state law.
4. To the extent possible, remedial reading classes will not exceed the maximum
recommended by the Department of Education.
6. Case load for adjustment counselors shall at no time exceed the number set by

3) My contract also stipulates that access to special education services has to be fair and equitable, no matter what neighborhood your school is in:

“The Committee recognizes that it must provide sufficient personnel to deliver services to
meet the goals and objectives mandated by a student’s individualized education program
(IEP) in accordance with the timelines established by federal and state law.  Therefore, it
is the responsibility of the Office of Special Education (OSE) to ensure that caseloads for
OSE specialists fulfilling a student’s IEP are equitable throughout the district.”

4) Concerned about your kid’s safety? We’ve got rules for that too:

“The School Committee agrees to provide a workplace with adequate heating, ventilation
and lighting.

Where educationally feasible, larger classes will be assigned larger classrooms.”

Think those last two things are no big deal? Clearly you’ve never been asked to conduct your classes in a broom closet. Or in an unheated basement in the dead of winter. My colleagues and I have been asked to do those things. Because of the union contract, we can’t be forced to teach your children in unsafe or unsuitable environments.

5) How about supplies? Kids are supposed to have books, right?:

You wouldn’t believe what some teachers and students are asked to do without. My first year teaching I wasn’t in a union. In order to teach 24 classes over 4 grade levels (that’s roughly 500 children per week) the school provided me with one package of Crayola crayons and a stack of construction paper. I had to buy my own copy paper and pay to photocopy every worksheet I handed out and note I sent home… for 500 students. And books? We had none. I ended up paying for most of my classroom supplies out of my own pocket as I worked in a poor inner city school where I could not rely on parent donations.

That’s why I’m so glad the following language is in my current contract:

“The School Committee will continue its policy of providing sufficient funds to ensure that
each pupil in classrooms has proper instructional materials, including textbooks, for his
own use.”

When was the last time your boss at your corporate job asked you to pay to photocopy those files he wants on his desk? Or required you to bring your own paperclips or folders to work? To most of working America the idea of this is laughable, even surreal, yet for teachers it is a reality. Even though my union now pays for a generous portion of my teaching supplies I still spend about $1,000 a year for supplies, to educate your child. I am by no means unique. Think about that next time you filch a free stack of Post-it notes from your office supply closet!

    • Ayelle
    • March 8th, 2011

    Wow. Some of those stories are unbelievable. By the time I was old enough to know anything about it, my father was teaching in a relatively well-to-do public school, and those stories about his teaching days in Louisiana were just that to me, stories. Of course he *still* bought supplies for his classroom despite the relative wealth of our district, like kleenex, pencils, chalk and erasers — other stuff I have by this point forgotten — but teachers having to buy books, to pay to copy tests and handouts? Though come to think of it he did go through a lot of printer paper and ink, maybe he didn’t have reliable access to a photocopier either… anyway I didn’t realize that situations like the ones my father held in his teaching days in poorer school districts from back before I was born were still so common today. :(

    • Ayelle
    • March 8th, 2011

    Er, I should clarify. In the school district where I grew up, my father belonged to a strong teacher’s union. Which was part of why we had so good, then. Why he was providing kleenex and chalk, as opposed to textbooks and calculators.

  1. I think the phenomenon of teachers paying for supplies out of pocket is a fairly common one, even in wealthier districts. I actually don’t mind doing it occasionally. Sometimes you find something your classroom really needs and most teachers would rather pay out of pocket and teach a lesson the way they want it taught than save their own money and leave their classroom lacking. I don’t mind doing it once in a while, I just don’t want to be told that I’m lazy and I’m paid too much when I’m spending my paycheck bringing in all manner of resources for the kids!

    I have difficulty understanding why people don’t get that you can’t have it both ways. People complain that schools cost too much, but if we sent home a “required supply list” and asked each family to send in a kit of basic supplies for their students to use, and possibly kick in some extras for kids who can’t afford it, I’m sure some people would do it but I’m sure many others would feel offended that they were required to spend money on school supplies. Education costs money, plain and simple!

      • Bri
      • March 8th, 2011

      We had school supply lists every year of elementary school and junior high. Besides things like “2 wide-ruled notebooks” and “12 #2 pencils,” there were things that depended on your last name: A-E would bring in Kleenex, F-J hand soap, etc. I’m sure the teachers still bought extras for those students who couldn’t afford/forgot to bring certain supplies, too. In high school we also had to buy our own books (though, much like college, it was more like renting – you could sell them back at the end of the year for the next year’s students). Not being a parent at the time, I have no idea how controversial this was, or would be today, and we weren’t exactly in an urban environment. When and if I have kids of my own, though, I certainly wouldn’t balk at being asked to provide some supplies for them.

    • TRO
    • March 8th, 2011

    Have you ever met a teacher who has gone into teaching for the MONEY??? NO!! Teachers teach because they are dedicated to educating our children…your children! This country is in the middle of an educational crisis which has been going on for years and is just coming to light as such! Without dedicated teachers our children would not, could not be educated to compete in this country or in our current global environment!If we don’t protect our teachers we can’t protect our children in the educational environment. We need to solve our education puzzle! There is no more immediate problem. Our children can’t wait!!
    Teachers’ main concern is their students and giving them the best education possible. The unions are there to afford teachers the opportunity to do that without having to worry about class size, classroom condition etc!

  2. Bri, I think it’s great that your community pitched in to supply the classroom. I know some schools where parents do this, although sadly, it’s mostly in more upper class communities where parents have the time and disposable income to fundraise.
    I think people’s reaction to being asked to supply the classroom really depends on the mentality of the communities. In some poor districts it is unrealistic to expect every parent to bring in much more than a pencil. Sadly, those are the districts where the teachers have the most to do and the least amount of money in the budget to do it with.

    • LJQM
    • March 11th, 2011

    I had an eye-opening experience this past fall when we participated in a back-to-school program through our church. This was the third year volunteers had gone this particular South Dallas elementary school (def. low-income) to help the teachers get ready for the new year. It mainly consisted of putting up bulletin boards, washing lockers, etc. We were also asked to buy a backpack and school supplies to donate -really basic stuff – paper, pencils, rulers, crayons.
    Our church has a huge congregation and I think they ended up with literally hundreds of backpacks to hand out, which is awesome; but it also made me wonder what life was like for the students before this program. . I’m betting it was pretty different from my days of debating over which Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper to get.

  3. LJQM… from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for doing this! You have really made a profound impact on the teachers and students in that school. What a great program. I wonder what kind of thing like this exist in my area?

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