How do union teachers teach about unions?

with stefan

Myself at the Labor Day Parade. With Stefan Cohen

• September 7, 2015

I am a proud member of the New York State Teacher Association and the Rochester Teachers Association.

In this blog, I have defended and promoted both, as well as the related public union, B.E.N.T.E. (Board of Education Non-Teaching Employees).  If unions are the problem, why do we have so many high performing schools in Monroe County? and Alex White on charter schools and school funding

 

benteAt the same time, I am also an English and Social Studies teacher. In both areas, the American labor movement is an integral theme: whether in the novel Lyddie about Lowell Mill girls or the Triangle Waist Coat Factory inferno or Scott Walker’s “union busting” in a P.I.G (Participation in Government) class. And even sometimes (not often enough) students hear about the RTA or charter schools in the news and wonder what’s going on.

No doubt the public has asked–as I do–given my invested interest in positive representations of unions (especially mine), how–should–I maintain intellectual neutrality?

For more insights, I turned to Stefan Cohen, history teacher (20+ years at SOTA) whose new role is Director of the Career in Teaching Program.

WARNING: This is a LONG post. Its hoped-for-worthwhileness may require perseverance. Alas, summer is over. As much as I enjoyed (and perhaps you were amused) when I was a passenger in the Ide Pace Car at the Twilight Criterium, held that raucous impromptu poetry slam at Lux Lounge, even chalked my own lines on the Poets Walk or threw that touchdown pass to Roland Williams, it’s back to school. (For those who know Stefan he usually has plenty (of good things) to say.)

I opened the conversation–done a little bit on the fly as we were marching–with one side of the debate. The late Howard Zinn did not adhere to notions of neutral teaching. Taking a strong social justice/activist position, Zinn made his case:

If teacher unions want to be strong and well-supported, it’s essential that they not only be teacher unionists but teachers of unionism. We need to create a generation of students who support teachers and the movements of teachers for their rights.

While I understand Zinn’s perspective, he presents a simplified template for how teachers do teach unionism. In a way, Zinn–especially given his radical politics–can too easily be caricatured by union opponents. As if social studies teachers are indoctrinating students to be little Eugene V. Debs. In response to Zinn, Stefan sees a different dynamic at work:

As social studies teachers, we often separate teaching about unions from our membership in a union. Though I am sure I am not the only history teacher who held up my copy of the RCSD-RTA Contract and used my own collective bargaining agreement as a lens into how unions work. Of course, not every teacher shares Howard Zinn’s political perspective.

As our conversation broadened–more leisurely after the parade was over–I learned how deeply committed RCSD teachers–in this case social studies teachers–are to content mastery and a professional development program that is fundamentally about RTA-District collaboration.

Furthermore, teacher are constantly reflecting on how to present curriculum within the context of their own belief systems. Stefan’s explanation of his own approach frames some of the complexity involved:

I tend to present a perspective and then turn around and play devil’s advocate in order to fairly and fully illustrate the range of opinion; or be explicit about political perspective and create a safe environment for students to contest that perspective. Neutral is a hard one to pull off, since a perspective is embedded in the evidence we select and the stories we tell. The challenge of approaching politically charged topics with students is one faced by teachers of all political stripes.

The best teacher takes the students along on the inevitable balancing act.

To provide some specifics, Stefan gives a rich overview of labor topics covered in any history or government classroom:

Teaching history, I used to spend a fair amount of time with juniors in discussing the larger goals of the early labor movement (8 hour day, wages, control over one’s labor) alongside the growth of big business (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Eastman). With middle schoolers, the focus was more directly on child labor and work conditions and the powerful narratives found in those struggles. Many of us use the dramatic story and impact of the Triangle Fire to illustrate the immigration, labor,  and social reform struggles of the Progressive Era. Some years I dipped into the more radical politics of the Wobblies, or the Haymarket trial, or the particulars of a specific strike (1877 Railway or Homestead). The labor movement makes an appearance as part of New Deal legislation (Wagner Act) and gets beaten back in the 50’s (Taft-Hartley Act). It shows up briefly supporting Civil Rights efforts. Current events  lessons in Economics and Participation in Government classes can present more of an opportunity to address the specific issues faced by the labor movement today (Scott Walker, minimum wage, service economy, political endorsements).

In a good year, I make use of the wonderful resources for local labor history assembled for the Rochester Labor Council including the excellent documentary segments in Struggle in Smugtown (http://rochesterlabor.org/laborhistory.html). We collected and presented many resources for these topics to teachers as part of RCSD’s Teaching American History grant project in 2011.

Finally, Stefan hones in on the central message. RCSD teachers are actively working collaboratively with not against the District:

I don’t want to generalize, but I think for many social studies teachers, identity as a union member feels distinct from the topics our students study. The irony is that our membership in our union is what enables us to work effectively as educators. Our union membership ensures that teacher voices get included in decisions that directly affect our teaching and our profession. That is the most important aspect of our union membership, and it need not be a partisan one.

I currently direct the Career in Teaching program for the district that provides mentor support to new teachers and other colleagues as part of a Peer Assistance and Review program. This is a union-district collaboration that provides leadership opportunities to teachers, improves classroom instruction, and strengthens the teaching profession. It is a nationally-recognized program that would not exist without the support of the RTA. The highly-politicized media narratives pitting unions against [fill in the blank] obscures the real struggles that we face as educators in this current educational climate.

That media narrative, unfortunately, works as a smokescreen that impedes talking about and tackling real issues.

union 2

Sara and Federica, Nazareth College education students from Italy.

Today’s sultry weather reminds them of their hometown Rome. Wait until winter. Think Rome, NY!

So, you when see teachers at the Parade, you are not  watching Labor (the RTA) marching against Capital/Management (the District). Often teachers (who do not have to join the union but are required to pay dues as their contract is collectively bargained) are the first to critique the RTA.

You are seeing thoughtful people whose primary desire is to serve students responsibly and professionally.