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Talking union

The film "Waiting for 'Superman'" leveled some harsh criticisms of teacher unions. Some local teachers took time with us to share their points of view.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook assembled six Philadelphia teachers to talk about some of the issues raised about unions in the film “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” The six are a mix of veterans and those with less than four years experience, including two who came through Teach for America. One now teaches in a charter.

All six teachers expressed philosophical support for teacher unions, and none felt that they have outlived their purpose. But they had different perspectives on what unions have done and can accomplish in the future to enhance teaching and learning.

Excerpted here are responses about areas where the teachers’ union has advanced the quality of education for children and where it has been an obstacle.

We’ll have a complete transcript available soon.

Denise (Dee) Rogers: Let’s face it – my teaching conditions are your kids’ learning conditions. The temperature in my classroom is the temperature your kids have to sit in all day. If there’s 38 kids crammed in there with 30 desks, that’s your children sitting on this desk, on the radiator, anywhere. So when we’re fighting for school staff … those things benefit children. …

They’re trying new programs. … There’s a handful of districts, handful of unions throughout the country that have put into their contracts peer assistance and review. And Philadelphia is one of those districts. We are coming to the table with the administration, working together.

And when a teacher is identified as consistently performing in an unsatisfactory manner in the classroom, they’re identified, and they’re given a prescribed amount of time to be given some intense support and to improve. And if they don’t improve, then the person will be let go. But it is a program where we’re coming together and taking seriously unsatisfactory performance.

Bonnee Breese: The first thing on unions’ agenda is always to make classroom size smaller. And that helps students tremendously. Magnet schools and charter schools and other types of schools all have a smaller student-teacher ratio. However, it seems as if the union asked for it, then the union is wrong for doing so. And that’s to benefit students. …

I think that [the unions] are answering to the call that is needed [today]. I feel like public education hasn’t outgrown the industrial revolution. [Schools] haven’t changed and teachers’ unions have. And teachers’ unions are really trying to help move schools and education systems forward the best way that they know how.

Trey Smith: I come from a family of teachers. I know what it looks like to go above and beyond a union contract. And my parents never talked about what the union contract looked like because my mom was there. I was there with her on Saturdays and Sundays. …

I don’t want to malign the [District] school I was in because I worked with some wonderful, wonderful, teachers…and especially a great union rep. But if I’m organizing an event in my school, like field day, and it requires teachers to maybe come outside during lunch, the first concern is, “What does the union have to say about us losing our lunch?”

If you don’t want to lose your lunch, fine. It’s in your contract, great. But my concern was that the kids got to eat hot dogs today and got to have some fun, have face-painting. I agree that people need their lunch period, but to me, sometimes I think that the environment that’s created isn’t always in the best interest of children. And again, I work with great teachers, and I did work with great teachers. And I loved my school. And we were still able to have the field day and have lunch. But those types of questions don’t come up for me in the charter school I’m in now.

Jim Hardy: Any honest look at the problems of education…would have teachers unions as one of the only forces looking for the long-term benefit and growth of students. … The forces that tend to label unions as the enemy tend to be looking out for short-term political gain and ways to make themselves look good without actually investing in the future of education.

I think that teachers’ unions are more important now than ever. They provide an opportunity for building the kinds of schools that can make a difference in society, where the school can be part of a movement towards more equity in society, equal opportunity for all students. And if you look at what teachers’ unions are calling for these days, it’s not just the basic work protections and respect, but it’s about improving educational opportunities in every school, making sure we have public schools that meet the needs of every student, and we’re not building an education system that’s just focused on the needs of a few. …

What’s unfortunately too common in some schools is there’s such an environment where teachers are under attack. And often things roll downhill. …

And that sometimes leads to the kind of reaction from teachers of “All I have are these few rights.” And so, if you’re not respected and appreciated for all the work that you put in, and then you’re asked to oh, [give up] your lunch, then that raises the question, “Are you trying to take away the few protections that I do have?”

Kristin Luebbert: I really think 99.9 percent of the time, they’re on the side of the children. The one thing that’s happened to me in 10 years happened this year that I thought was a little unfair. … We had an open position at our school. And it was a writing teacher. And they allowed someone who was on a long-term illness leave to pick up that position. Now I understand the seniority rights that, you know; she wanted the position. But what I don’t understand is that we still don’t have a teacher at our school. So, I feel like you shouldn’t lose your seniority if you’re out on a long-term illness leave, but neither should you take a position and say I can’t come back and there won’t be a teacher. So, that hurt the fact that we had to have subs. …

The union does fight for nurses. … Three years ago, [the administration] tried to tell us we only needed a nurse three days a week because of the number of children. What they didn’t understand – the bean counters – the number of children had nothing to do with the fact that [some special ed] children have to be tube fed every day … by an RN. And because of the union, and the principal was on our side, they had to give us that nurse.

Jonathan Garr: I think that tenure, in many ways, does protect teachers that shouldn’t be teaching. In order to end up protecting the good teachers, you end up protecting the bad teachers, also. But I think it becomes that issue only because there isn’t a good way to be able to rate teachers. No one’s come up with a good comprehensive way to rate teacher performance. And I think that the union, in many ways, has been seen as a bogeyman because they’re really fighting against many of the ways that they’re trying to rate teacher performance. Not because it’s rating teacher performance, but because it’s doing it incorrectly. I think that the tenure piece in protecting a lot of the red tape that goes into getting bad teachers out of the room is a way that in many ways harms our students. …

In the public school system, where there is a lot of this top-down micromanagement, the union is there to kind of be that buffer and to help teachers do what it is that they need to do, which is to teach. And in a lot of charter schools, there isn’t that top-down, all that micromanagement. …

I’ve never seen somebody who’s left [for charters] because of the union. They don’t leave because they feel like the union is holding them back. They’re leaving because they feel like forces outside of the union are holding them back from being able to do what it is that they need to do.

Participants in our roundtable discussion

Denise (Dee) Rogers is a National Board Certified Teacher working for the Peer Intervention Program. Before that she taught 2nd through 8th grades at EM Stanton, Finletter, Grover Washington, and Spruance. She is on the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) panel and is also a member of the executive board of the PFT. She is in her 15th year of teaching for the District.

Bonnie Breese is an English Language Arts teacher at Overbrook High School, where she previously taught special education. Besides 10 years at Overbrook, she taught in Williamsport and Wilkes-Barre as well as Graterford and Muncy state prisons. She is involved in the Philadelphia Writing Project and is a member of the PFT executive board.

Trey Smith is in his first year at Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School after three years teaching 7th and 8th grade science at Morrison Elementary. At Boys’ Latin, he teaches physical science and chairs the science department. A TFA alumnus, he is involved with the Philadelphia Writing Project and the National Science Teachers Association.

Jim Hardy is a fourth-year social studies teacher at Kensington Culinary Arts High School. He is an active member of the Kensington School and Community Coalition and a co-founder of both the Teacher Action Group and Education Not Incarceration – Delaware Valley. He is a PFT building rep.

Kristin Luebbert is a 7th and 8th grade literacy and social studies teacher at the Bache-Martin School and the PFT building rep. She came into Philadelphia in 2001 as a literacy intern, and has taught 1st, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades at Bache. She formerly taught at Saint Michael’s business school in Fishtown and the University of Nebraska.

Jonathan Garr is in his fifth year at Tilden Middle School. An alumnus of Teach for America, he teaches 6th grade math and is also his school’s PFT building representative.

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