“What does the union do for me?”

At the time, I didn’t have the whole an answer.  I was the president of our local branch of the California Teachers Association.  We were embroiled in a campaign to defeat a slate of wrong-headed reforms proposed by our then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I was in the lunchroom of an elementary school asking teachers to spend time in the evenings at the phone bank.

The teacher asking the question had a legitimate concern.  From her point of view, her salary and benefits were just a normal aspect of her job.  She didn’t see the work at the table to negotiate her compensation.  Her working conditions also seemed to be an invisible norm of her employment, rather than hard won concessions.  From her point of view, she saw her union demanding monthly dues, asking for extra work from her every election cycle, and little else.

These days, when I hear that question from a colleague, I answer, “Well, I know teachers who have applied for and received $5000 or $20,000 from the union to fund their ideas about how to improve their school.”

You see, I’m fortunate to be a part of the California Teachers Association’s Institute for Teaching (IfT).  For the past four years, I have served on the grant selection committee determining which proposals are selected to receive those $5,000 to $20,000 grants.

Over the past four years, the IfT has awarded nearly a hundred grants totaling over $875,000.

It’s teacher driven strength-based school change.  For years, teachers like me have told politicians, pundits, and deep-pocket foundations, “No.  We do not want your so-called reform.  Please ask us, we know what our schools, our classrooms, and our children need.”  For years, the same so-called reformers have ignored teachers and initiated yet another top-down panacea for public education.

Unlike the big foundations, IfT does not have a pre-set agenda, only a desire to support teachers who want envision a positive future for their schools and their students. They want to develop a plan that would lead them from where they are now, to that bright future.  “We’re getting to envision what our school should look like,” one teacher told me, echoing similar comments made my many others, “and we’re getting to make that dream come true.”

Over the past four years, I’ve been privileged to visit many of those projects.  I’ve seen middle school children using computers to create virtual reality simulations.  I’ve seen high school students designing applications for iPads.  On the other end of the technology spectrum, I’ve visited a project with the back-to-basics idea of building caring relationship among the students, teachers and families while building and nurturing their school garden.

The conversations I’ve had with grant recipients have been inspiring.

“The technology is so new, sometimes we don’t know if it is going to work when we start up the computer” said the teacher running the virtual-reality classroom.  “The kids have been great about it, though.  We’ve really been co-learners with this technology.”

Now, four years after it began, the IfT is planning to gather gathering a dozen exemplary grant recipients together to display their projects as part of a Teacher Innovation Expo.  This April, they will descend on CTA headquarters in Burlingame.  Just after breakfast, each grantee team will hold a table, engaging expo attendees in informal conversations about their projects.  Later in the morning, each team will get fifteen minutes to brief the assembly about their project in a TED-like event.  Finally, we’ll wrap up the day with a few panel discussion on topics such as, “How we found the inspiration for our project”, “Building support in our school and district” and “How we wrote a winning grant.”

Our hope is that this year our selection committee will have to read over a hundred new grant applications.

Certainly, the IfT grants are not the only thing that my union “does for me,” but that is another story.  In the meantime, these strength-based grants give me the direct and concrete answer I wish I had all those years ago in that elementary school lunchroom.

What about you?  What does your union do for you?

Does your state association have a program similar to California’s IfT? 

If you could apply for one of our grants, what would your idea be?

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