Skip to main content
Lily Eskelsen's picture

The United States of America has some of the best teachers in the world.

May I repeat? The United States of America has some of the best teachers in the world. And some of the best teachers in the United States are leading us to something better… through their unions.

Now, you wouldn’t know that listening to the Talking Heads’ pontificate during National Bash a Teacher month. There is a convergence of politicians, activists, venture capitalists and even movie-makers for heaven’s sake, looking for a slick, simple storyline as to why, in neighborhoods with growing crime, unemployment, drug use and incarceration rates, students are failing and dropping out.

Their answer: Those kids must have bad teachers.

You hear it from the liberal-leaning; you hear it from the conservative-leaning. They have different motives, but they need things boiled down. They need a sound-bite answer. They need a villain. They decided, without research or evidence or analysis that the one-size-fits-all finger points to: The Teacher…

…and that teacher’s union.

Our critics are fond of saying that “we are for the teachers” and not the students.

It makes me angry, because I know something they don’t know.

I know the names of the people who lead the unions on the ground in some of the toughest turf in America. I know the union leaders who have committed heart, soul and resources to make a difference in the lives of the students in their care.

This week, in Denver, educators from all around the country are learning about unions that are defying the unfair stereotype that they don’t care about students.

I’m a union leader.

I got involved in my union because I was so frustrated with politicians in my state who so poorly funded Utah public schools (State Motto: Stack ‘Em Deep; Teach ‘Em Cheap) that I had 39 5th graders in class one year.

I’m a teacher who believes students must have a personal, caring relationship with a teacher in order to reach toward their highest potential. I wanted my union to fight for what I needed to be a good teacher.

And they did.

Our Special Ed teachers asked their union to fight for the support staff that they needed to reach every student. And they did. High school teachers and college professors asked their unions to fight for their students’ ability to have access to an affordable college education. And they did.

Today, unions all over the country are taking their advocacy for students to a new level.

They are fighting to attract and retain the best teachers in the world. Denver’s Math and Science Leadership Academy is a teacher-led public school in a high-poverty community where 60% of the student body are learning to speak English as a second language.

They understand that when you put good heads together, kids learn more. They are breaking down the walls of isolation that confine too many good teachers and support staff. They collaborate on designing real-world, community-based projects so kids can learn by doing.

The educators learn from each other. They critique each other and analyze student data together to make sure everyone is part of the team of bring every child to a higher level. And it’s working. This high-poverty school is a magnet for the highest qualified teachers. For every opening, there’re 30 applications.

We’re seeing result of union innovations in Montgomery County, Maryland schools which were awarded the prestigious Baldridge award by the U.S. Department of Commerce, citing achievements where 49% of students were high-scorers on Advanced Placement exams (compared to 16% nationally), SAT scores higher than the national average and parent satisfactions of 86%.

School board members will tell you this wouldn’t have been possible without the leadership of the Montgomery County Education Association.

And the list goes on. The Massachusetts Teachers Association has proposed its Reinventing Educator Evaluation plan. The Illinois Education Association has developed Accountability for All to streamline the fair dismissal process for teachers who are not succeeding.

The Salem-Keizer Education Association in Oregon is taking on the schools in the toughest neighbors to build the skills of educators, measure effectiveness in evaluations and create new career pathways.

Little Rock is bringing in the voices of the community. Helena, Montana is making their district a magnet for the best prepared teachers. Des Moines is using the NEA school climate assessment program KEYS (Keys to Excellence for Your Schools) to get hard data in which to build real interventions that lead to student success.

There are too many to mention. And they are all uniquely designed for unique communities. There’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint. But these unions have a common strategy: End isolation; build a culture of collaboration and purposeful intervention; have a construct that holds colleagues responsible to each other and to the success of the whole, blessed child – not some arbitrary cut score on a standardized test.

These unions have a common goal at heart: We have a responsibility to our students as much as to the teachers and support professions who serve them. We will not wait for some politician to get this right. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

We’re leading. Join us.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!