Editor’s note: This is the third installment of “A Choice Conversation,” an ongoing dialogue between Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up for Students and a redefinED host, and John Wilson, a former NEA leader who writes the Unleashed blog at Education Week.
Doug Tuthill: John, it’s fascinating to see the new opportunities customization is providing teachers. In Florida, it’s increasingly common for teachers to teach at a district school in the morning, at a private school in the afternoon, and for an online school in the evening. The opportunities provided by technology are particularly intriguing. Three years ago my son’s Florida Virtual School teacher lived in Portland, Oregon, where she was a stay-at-home mom. Many online teachers are at home raising young children while teaching full time.
Recently, I’ve been wondering how customization will impact the services teacher unions provide their members. Given teachers will increasingly have multiple employers in the future, perhaps a key union service could be helping teachers manage the complexity that comes with multiple employers. For example, maybe teachers would prefer to be employed by their union and contracted out to various providers. That would reduce employment hassles for teachers and strengthen their relationship with the union. Unions could also provide financial and administrative support for teachers wanting to open their own schools, and form collaborative networks of teacher-owned schools. You’ve been much closer to internal union discussions in recent years than I have. How do union leaders think customization will affect the services they provide teachers?
John Wilson: Doug: You raise some very interesting points. Every teacher that is treated in a collective manner needs a union to leverage the unity of the group for fair wages and benefits, excellent learning and teaching conditions, and job security for being a good teacher. Customization can be bargained to accommodate those uniquenesses. I have heard some horror stories from virtual teachers as it relates to their employee status. They need a union. Those that are employees of a district have a union to represent them. Unions need to do a better job with those that are in a different configuration. Some of our state affiliates like Pennsylvania are reaching out to virtual teachers.
The challenge is not that teachers in virtual schools need a union. That is evident. The challenge is building the trust in unions to advocate policies that sustain their job. NEA supports a blended approach as the best method for virtual education. That may not be possible in every situation. There is a “chicken and egg” challenge here. If virtual educators joined the union and became activists, they would influence the policies. I have seen charter school educators do that in some state affiliates. It makes a difference, but virtual educators must join first and work from within.
Doug Tuthill: John: In this age of customization, teacher unions should use their collective power to ensure every teacher is treated as an individual. One-size-fits-all is as ineffective for teachers as it is for students.
Teacher compensation, evaluation and work responsibilities should all be customized to fit the unique needs and attributes of each teacher. Professional sports unions have been using their collective power to do this for years. The most important issue for unions in pro football, baseball and basketball is free agency. That is, the right of players to work for the team that provides them with the best work environment and compensation. Imagine if teacher unions were to use their collective power to provide individual teachers with this same level of empowerment – that would be a tremendous advancement for teachers and the teaching profession.
The shift from a one-size-fits-all organizational paradigm to one of customization will understandably be difficult for teacher unions. Many of the teachers on the cutting edge of customization aren’t even allowed to join today’s unions. I suspect change will come from younger teachers rising up to challenge the status quo from within existing teacher unions, and teachers in places like virtual schools forming new types of unions. While this paradigm shift from one-size-fits-all to customization is going to be messy for the next decade or two, ultimately we’re going to end up with a much stronger public education system and much better teacher unions.
John Wilson: Doug: I am a big believer that the minimum should not be the maximum when it comes to compensation and career enhancement. I do know that the union has to be an advocate for the minimum threshold in compensation to be fair and reflective of the worth of teachers to our society. This has been the challenge in doing what you suggest. We have not been able to achieve that fair base so that we can move toward more customized opportunities for individual teachers to advance in their profession. The union has to be the umpire for fairness, equity, and accessibility for all. If we are to follow the sports model, then let’s have that strong base in compensation and professional recognition. Then, we can introduce all kinds of creative career tracks that make teaching a profession that many will aspire to enter.