The National Union for Teachers (yes, the NUT) and the National Association of Schoolteachers/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) held a one day strike in Leeds and many other areas of the UK on Tuesday of this week. They were protesting new changes in work requirements, pay scales, and pensions. My daughter’s school and my main Fulbright project partner school were among the many schools that shut down because most of the teaching staff honored the strike.
The strike got me thinking. Teachers in my state of Tennessee have never, to my knowledge, had the legal right to strike and have even recently lost the right to collective bargaining. Instead of a union, we have the Tennessee Education Association, a professional organization that advocates for our needs. I remember one of my university professors explaining to me that unions are more appropriate for skilled workers while professional organizations promote respect for teaching as a profession. The problem with this rationale is that most other professionals can either individually bargain for pay raises and benefits or are able to set their own rates of pay directly with their clients. My pay is determined by a set schedule that I have no power to change.
And it feels to me that the level of respect for teaching in Tennessee and across the US has declined in the 20 or so years that I have been teaching. The UK may have its Education Secretary Michael Gove, but we have Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman. Huffman has scrapped teacher pay scales that give incentives for experience and additional education based on studies that have shown that teachers do not improve after five years of experience. He refers to studies that show limited value-added results on the very standardized tests that he has dropped because the standards are both ridiculously low and include irrelevant content. Never mind that only 35% of Tennessee teachers teach in an area even measured by these tests. Has he ever thought that while, yes, anyone can learn to teach to the test in five years, it takes about that long to gain the courage to realize the standards you are teaching are garbage and that you should teach real, meaningful content instead? That sort of teaching is much harder to measure.
During the strike in Leeds, I was impressed by the high level of parent and community support expressed in interviews in the news and through my own personal conversations. I think that may be due, in part,to the general unpopularity of Michael Gove. One outcome I have noticed in the trend toward unqualified politicians taking the lead in forcing educational change is a bonding between teachers, parents, and the community against a common adversary. Take, for example, the Facebook campaign to oust Kevin Huffman.
Here’s some nutty thinking -If we are to attract bright, qualified educators, we have to offer competitive pay, a decent working environment, and some level of respect for the profession of teaching. Money may not be the main reason teachers are attracted to the profession, but we cannot retain teachers who are unable to support their families on a teacher’s salary. And we cannot attract new teachers if our politicians continue to publicly malign our profession. Many of the teachers I know cite distrust and disrespect as the factors that have either caused them to leave teaching or to consider leaving.
So I’m thinking the NUT has it right. Teachers must take action to improve pay and working conditions for our field if we are ever to improve education. We must step up and be the agents of improvement in our systems of education. We must take control of the conversation because if we do not, unqualified politicians will force changes based on faulty data. They will continue to cling to the straw man argument that they must force change because educators want to preserve the status quo. I have never spoken with a teacher, parent or school administrator who did not want to improve the quality of education. So it’s time for us to step up and use our experience to guide education to a better place.