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I’ve wanted to write a post on my experience with school unions for a while now and have finally taken a stab at it. This is a huge topic so I’m trying to touch on a few different things that have been on my mind for a while. My experience was a real mixed bag and probably specific to Chicago. I don’t work for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) anymore but somehow I still get all the email from them and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). I’ll try to divvy this into subsections but we’ll see how it goes. One day I will write a short post…
I got my first teaching union when I got a job at one of the largest public schools on the north side of Chicago. There were about 100 faculty members, including special education aides serving a student population of about 1,400-1,500 students. I paid no attention to the union at all until one day the school’s union representative, one of the counselors, burst into my room with a clipboard and said, “I found you! You haven’t signed up for the CTU yet.” I asked her if everyone was a member and she said, “Yes, well, except one person.” I found out later that the lone non-member was “a Republican,” a math teacher who was “admin’s pet” and made all the charts and tables for the principal’s presentations. I got the message and I never said anything political to anyone which made life easier.
Resources and Supplies
CPS did not provide anything to teachers besides the bare minimum (desks, classroom textbooks, and whiteboards) to set up their classrooms. Everything else, teachers provided. To fill the gap, the CTU gives a $250 allowance to teachers at the start of every school year to spend on whatever resources they need with very few restrictions. To explain CPS classroom resources: the school’s tech guy brought paper twice a week to the teacher’s lounge. Each teacher could make up to 2,500 photocopies per quarter with a personal code in the copy machines and there was one (frequently-malfunctioning) Riso machine for unlimited copies…provided there were paper and toner. Math and social studies ran out of copies the fastest and would borrow codes from the special ed assistant teachers who never needed all their copies. Other resource requests ran the gamut from recently-published textbooks for classes (i.e., within the last 5-8 years because the old textbooks were often falling apart beyond the magic of duct tape) to repairs on shared musical instruments for band and orchestra classes, to repairs on the six Chromebook carts, each holding 31-32 devices. The CTU’s $250 helped teachers fill in a huge resource gap and paid for a tremendous amount of resources including personal paper supplies and ink cartridges for the printer, markers, pencils for students to use, and general classroom supplies that otherwise do cause a drain on your monthly budget. Elementary teachers spend an additional fortune on color markers, crayons, construction paper, and glue sticks.
These issues on resources came up in a big way in 2016 when the contract came up for renegotiation and there was the threat of a strike. There were many meetings in which nearly the entire faculty was gathered and spoke about the effect of missed classes on students especially for an indefinite period, the effect of a long strike on their families, and how poor publicity would focus on pay demands and not on the requests for smaller class sizes (which sometimes were 35-38 students with no solutions for the overflow enacted by CPS; one of my colleagues said kids sat on the floor and on the window sills when he ran out of desks), a more regular evaluation schedule by administrators, submitting unit plans rather than weekly lesson plans, updated resources and dirty classrooms (rodent infestations in some buildings, building cleaners either not picking up trash or using cleaning products diluted with water). Pay raises were never mentioned in the meetings as a bargaining point but protecting the pensions was very important. The BLM/social justice warrior-speak was entirely absent, from my school at least. That isn’t the case anymore and the CTU’s rhetoric is squarely focused on issues of housing the homeless students, BLM, social justice, the police, etc. These were not parts of the 2016 contract negotiation.
In the most recent contract strike in 2019, a huge issue that emerged was the need to protect the libraries from closure. Many CPS schools still have libraries and a few of them still have a librarian on staff. There are two key points to make about this:
- The libraries in the three CPS schools that I worked in were no longer used as libraries. Students worked at big tables and sat in the stacks on their phones. However in terms of being functioning lending libraries, not anymore.
- Many librarians are not endorsed to teach anything other than library science. They have been teaching for a long time, they are tenured, and their salaries are expensive and they are not old enough to be retired early, an option that CPS offers every year to try to save a few pennies.
- Chicago has a good public library system with libraries in every neighborhood. Schools could create relationships with their local public libraries — my school was a five-minute walk from the public library.
Thus the union’s fight to “save the libraries” was not really about the importance of libraries at all, contrary to the opinion of many misguided liberals who wanted to rearrange the curriculum of several classes to teach students how to use the library instead of the internet. The Union was actually trying to save the very expensive librarians (in Chicago, a 20-plus year CPS veteran can earn around $90K) because they can’t be reassigned to teach anything else. The drive to save the libraries and their librarians was a foolhardy waste of the Union’s resources and a perfect example of waste in education that did nothing for the children. This is just one example. There are other examples of waste but the libraries were a good metaphor.
It takes about four full years to make tenure as a teacher. Tenure is determined by arriving at a certain rating through evaluations (that’s a whole post). Until a teacher becomes tenured, there are three evaluations per year: two formal and one informal. There are strict rules regarding the days between the dates for interviews and evaluations and paperwork submissions for admin. A single missed date and the entire process can get scrapped. If the teacher has been preparing for an evaluation and the administrator does not get back to them within the time period but then suddenly requests to visit their classroom on a different date, that is considered grievable by the union because it inconveniences the teacher to such a great extent. Teachers feel an enormous pressure to perform for the evaluations because they lead to tenure (or in the case of tenured teachers, their tenure can be gradually threatened) and much depends on the personality of the administrator. If the teacher has a class with behavioral problems, that will often show up on the review even if the teacher has simply gotten a rough bunch of kids.
My experience: I met at 2:10 p.m. with my admin, the Assistant Principal, to discuss my evaluation write-up and at 3:40 he was still talking. He explained to me that I could improve how I wrote our class’s agenda on the board (in public school, admin loves to see how much time will be devoted to each activity during the period. The idea is that a student will look up confused in the middle of class and think, “what’s going on? I don’t know what I’m doing?” so the kid will look at the board, check their watch and say, “oh! right! we are supposed to be reading silently! I will do that now with my peers!” Not a joke.)
A colleague heard that my conference went on for 90 minutes and she told the union rep who came to find me. I confirmed it and the rep said, “oh, no way, that’s the last time that happens — he took advantage of your time because you didn’t know he had no contractual right to do that.” Shortly after, it was announced to the teachers that no evaluation conferences could take place after school — admin would have to finish all conferences within working hours. For teachers who had small children or obligations after school, this restriction on admin was met with relief.
Some of the victories from the 2016 contract negotiation were very helpful to teachers in the classroom. There was a requirement before the contract that teachers needed to put in two grades per week in the gradebook for every student, regardless of the subject. A full-time teacher teaches five periods per day. A normal class has about 30 students for a total load of 150 students. The two-grade-per-week requirement thus works out to 300 grades entered per week. But what if a teacher organized an activity that didn’t result in a grade that day? The union pushed for teachers to make their own autonomous decisions about how many grades needed to be entered for their classes with no requirement from admin. Another victory was getting schools the chance to choose whether they would submit unit maps or weekly unit plans. The scramble on Sunday evenings to plan all the weekly classes and submit everything to admin (and not hear anything back either) bothered many people and the union pushed to allow schools to vote independently allowed for much more flexibility.
Admin also organized the teachers and support staff onto teams that would meet after school to work on a variety of areas of the school that needed improvement — testing, discipline, technology, etc. The first problem though was that in a day of wight periods, five of which were occupied by teaching and the other three by meetings and class prep and grading, the teachers were unhappy about another responsibility being added to their plate. The first question at my discipline meeting was, “are we being paid for our time?”; when the answer was “no,” no one wanted to stay. Ultimately, people did stay because another teacher spoke up that while we had to do this for the children at least this one time, the union needed to see if our time could be reimbursed because this was another hour of our time after school. The groups seemed to fall apart with the union request because I don’t think there were funds to pay everyone for the number of meetings necessary to make the requisite changes. But it fell to the union once again to remove what was perceived as an extra task that admin put on the teachers’ plates.
I hear quite a lot of conservatives talk about how the unions are corrupted and have too much power. I found it very uncomfortable to be wedged between the CTU, with whom I did not agree on policy, and CPS. There were benefits to membership in the union that made me appreciate parts of my experience. However, it came hand-in-hand with a sense of marked antagonism between admin and the teachers that was palpable from the moment I stepped into my first building. I experienced a lot of pressure to do more from admin and I felt very stressed already with the day-to-day of teaching. The union, therefore, helped to relieve the pressure of those demands and restore a sense of proportion to expectations and time frames. At their best, the CTU helped restore checks and balances at school. At their worst, they sat by and did nothing.
The emails that I receive from the CTU now are very different in tone. I do think the organization has grown too powerful and far too political. In the last strike, the teachers won a 15 percent pay raise over five years from Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The union refuses to compromise on remote learning (despite it being a total failure by every measurable standard), they say they are campaigning for equitable housing for all students but especially black and brown, they sent a contingent to Venezuela to look into the fabulous education system there, they have teachers on the front lines with BLM paraphernalia who bring it into their classrooms, turn the curriculum into a battleground with the CTU’s blessing, and promise to grieve any administrator who would protest (there aren’t many but there you go), protecting sanctuary schools, undocumented students, and a huge push to hire black teachers. The CTU was very liberal when I was there just a few years ago, but it wasn’t mind-numbingly woke.
There you have a sliver of the union experience in teaching. I have a headache now … but I’d still like to know what you think. What do unions look like in other states? Other sectors? Thanks, as ever, for letting me try your patience.)Published in