I’m no blame-the-unions pundit. After all, management—not unions—have imposed many of the rules that stifle creative (heck, even just sensible) practices in schools.

But here’s the plain truth: it’s time for unions to innovate.

I’m no blame-the-unions pundit. After all, management—not unions—have imposed many of the rules that stifle creative (heck, even just sensible) practices in schools.

But here’s the plain truth: it’s time for unions to innovate.

In a thoughtful essay Marc Tucker penned last week, he makes the powerful case – like many others have as well — that policymakers will not support a professional model of teaching until teachers’ unions jettison the blue-collar model of organizing. (Other good reads on this topic include “Urban Teacher Unions Face Their Future” by Bruce Cooper and Marie-Elena Liotta; United Mind Workers by Chuck Kerchner, Julie Koppich, and Joseph Weeres; and Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice, edited by by Bob Peterson and Michael Charney.)

Tucker notes that a professional model of teaching requires a new way of recruiting and paying teachers and determining who leads or not. Unions have a critical role to play in this transition. We have looked on time and time again as policymakers, without leadership from teachers and their unions, have mucked up teaching reforms.

Abandoning the “defensive crouch” to become professional guilds

In TEACHING 2030, which I wrote with 12 expert teachers, we observed the sound reasons for unions to organize as they have in the past, ensuring that teachers can “earn a decent middle-class living, work under reasonable conditions, and not be hired or fired on the basis of administrative whims.” But I wholeheartedly agree with Tucker’s assessment: it is time for teachers’ unions to get out of the “defensive crouch.”

Tucker writes about the need for unions to hold themselves accountable for high-quality teaching—championing high standards for the profession. Agreed.

And I would take this analysis one step further. As we suggested in TEACHING 2030, unions must morph into 21st-century professional guilds whose missions include ensuring the right working conditions but also:

  • helping teachers spread their expertise to each other;
  • identifying and rewarding classroom excellence; and
  • certifying members who are ready to lead policy and pedagogical reforms.

Just imagine it: unions operating as professional guilds that broker contractual opportunities for teachers (and, yes, teacherpreneurs) to teach and to transform schools through leadership in districts, state education agencies, and/or nonprofits.

Reasons to ignore the naysayers

Some school reformers would refer to this idea of unions as professional guilds as “wishful thinking”—but I wonder. Is it wishful thinking… or do reformers lack trust in teachers to lead and hold themselves accountable for student outcomes? Is it wishful thinking… or do reformers fear that inconvenient truths about their economically or politically expedient agendas will surface if those who teach kids every day are making more of the decisions?

Three emerging trends suggest the public’s readiness for a new vision of unions’ roles.

First, the vast majority of the American people have trust and confidence in today’s teachers, and these public sentiments will soon trump bought-off media and policy pundits who have made a living bashing teachers. Second, more parents and teachers are joining forces to promote saner policies, particularly regarding student testing and accountability. Finally, there’s increasing awareness of how teachers’ unions in top-performing nations are serving as partners in reform, with visible benefits for students.

Promising signs of union transformation

Yes, there are many internal obstacles that the NEA must address to evolve from blue-collar union into 21st-century professional guild.

But the NEA is already shifting some gears, investing a recent dues increase ($3 per member) in school reform and teacher leadership. A few months ago, the NEA announced a partnership with CTQ and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to develop and mobilize teacher leaders. The Teacher Leaders Initiative (TLI), now in its infancy, is working with 140 classroom experts to pilot a teacher-designed leadership curriculum in CTQ’s virtual community, the Collaboratory.

We are already witnessing how these NEA members are developing their leadership chops in TLI, preparing to design and lead reforms related to the Common Core, teaching evaluation, and school redesign. This fall, they will launch independent leadership projects in their districts and states as another 300 teachers join their ranks. By 2016, over 1000 teachers will be cultivated for a bold brand of leadership from the classroom.

If pundits are nervous now about the impact of practicing teachers on the profession, they’d best buckle their seatbelts. The increasing visibility of teacher leaders will drive the kind of political will necessary for teaching to become a full profession.

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