Monday, September 7, 2015

Do Teachers Unions Need to Fight Harder for Their Members? Labor Day Reflections by Dr Patricia Robinson-Linder

On this Labor Day – and I am extremely grateful for it – I am collecting my thoughts with regard to my membership in labor unions. For the record, I have all my life held down two full-time careers, which necessitated my membership in eight labor unions. Most of them are part of the AFL-CIO. Two of my show business unions are affiliated with the Teamsters. Also, for the record, I belong to both of the teachers’ unions, the AFT and the NEA, as well as the professors’ union, the AAUP. I have been working in one of my careers since I was fifteen months old. At some point in my maturation, I decided that “the union can help you and the union can hurt you”. Clearly, I tried never to be naïve .Even so, in forty-five years of teaching, ten for the School District of Philadelphia, and more than sixty years in entertainment, there has been only one epic fail, and that was at the hands of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. First, allow me to say that I have no particular quarrel with the downtown, Chestnut Street representatives who connected with my schools. They were good, except in one way, and I now believe that that one tragic flaw was orchestrated somewhere on high and handed down through many layers of the American Federation of Teachers. Looking back, I believe I received no substantial warning from the teachers’ unions as to how the corporatization of education would affect us so negatively. I am referring to the advent and arrival of Common Core, the almost ridiculous and certainly obscure “newer” methods of teacher evaluation, the fervor of administrators to accept the garroting of highly-qualified, wonderfully-educated career faculty, including what I would call “smear campaigns,” and the bizarre and often pointless paperwork assignments (e.g. “back-mapping”) that kept us away from our preparation and execution of admirable classroom presentations, and our work with students, much of it individualized, that encouraged all students to internalize their lessons. Although I had been reading about it, the entire corporatization process remained something of an abstraction to me, something that would occur “in the future,” perhaps after I retired. Rather, in my last three years of teaching – and without the meetings that should have been called, the “coaching” of what one should do in these antagonistic situations, and the early and strong denunciation of some of School District of Philadelphia’s anti-education, anti-teacher practices, the whole corporatization initiative hit me fully in the face. The unions needed to protect us better. We needed full, direct warnings and instruction as to what to do to protect ourselves, the parents and guardians of our students, and, most of all, our students themselves.I fought through two years of the hostile chaos, battle-scarred beyond belief. The third and last year, just as I was about to file my retirement papers, in an irony that I view in a different light each day, I was hurt at school. Things had happened before, but not like this one – and yet I held no one at fault. Boys and girls will be boys and girls. Some youngsters running through the halls at the end of the week in some kind of a TGIF-energized moment, knocked me off my pins, and I flew into two walls. At first, I had a kind of lucidity, then I didn’t. Temple University told me that I was suffering from a double-concussion. I went into treatment that addressed some loss of memory, some trouble with the speech centers of the brain and those controlling coordination and spatial distances. My family doctor told me that “it would all come back”. My memory eventually returned in full in late April of my retirement year and the speech centers had cleared and re-aligned by February. Even with the best physical therapy, my balance never fully returned; I still watch out for myself in that regard. Ultimately, an old injury, incurred in theater work, was exacerbated by the new, and I now walk with a lift in my right shoe and, I’m sorry to say, with a limp.Retirement proceeded precisely as it should have, making me a retired employee of two states, Pennsylvania and Maryland, both of which were good to me. I have returned to college teaching and full-time theater and film work, yet I am haunted by that last year in public education. Somehow, I still feel the AFT had failed me, but if the concussions and other injuries had not occurred, could I have not done real, substantive teaching for those students, in spite of the unions’ failure to grasp the real gravity of it all, that would have set those young people on real lived lives and rewarding career paths? I suspect I will think about that one forever.


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