When I started my career, teaching in a school across the street from a jail in Adelanto, California, I had the choice to pay $50 a month in union dues or not. Either way I was going to receive the same pay and benefits. So at 22 years old, right out of college, with several maxed-out credit cards, I couldn’t think of any way that I would be better off with 50 less dollars in my pocket. I declined to join.
Two years later, when I moved back to Ohio, I still wasn’t convinced that it was important to be a member of the teachers’ union. I joined because everybody else did, even though I really didn’t see the point.
Now, a dozen years later, I am the VP of my local association. I’m part of the negotiations team. I represent my local association at regional and state OEA events. I talk contractual rights with teachers most evenings and on weekends. As I mow the lawn, I think about new ways to serve my colleagues through the association and how to engage them in union matters.
What the heck happened to me?
It wasn’t electroshock treatment or a near-death experience. It wasn’t false allegations lodged against me that required union representation.
My involvement in my local has steadily increased over the past twelve years, and the more involved I have become, the more rewarding the experience has been.
Being active in my local association has been an empowering experience. Through my involvement, I have been “in the know” about a great deal of the inner-workings of the school district. I don’t mean that there is some spy ring of teachers, or that people sit around gossiping about district business. I mean that there are critical policy decisions going on all the time in my district, and the union is intricately involved. By being active and attending regular monthly union meetings, I find out all the things that are happening district-wide and how they could potentially affect me and my classroom.
My involvement is beneficial, not only because I am more aware of what’s happening in the district. It’s beneficial because it’s made me more aware and knowledgeable about my collectively bargained contract. So many teachers who are uninvolved with their local have no idea about their rights. They grumble under their breath about being treated unfairly or about unjust situations in their building. If these teachers were more involved in the local association, they would know all the avenues they have to help them satisfactorily resolve disputes with management. Often, when I face a situation that I consider unjust, I can talk comfortably with an administrator and explain that a situation needs to be changed, by citing a section of the contract and explaining past practice.
I work with students everyday and work to develop my skills in delivering meaningful instruction. My growth as an instructor is important, but my growth as a leader amongst my colleagues is also important to me. My union activity affords me many leadership opportunities. As a result, I feel confident speaking to my principal on a teacher’s behalf or representing and advocating for a teacher in a meeting. When I or my colleagues have concerns, I can bring them up at labor-management meetings, discussing important issues with the superintendent, treasurer and head of human resources. I can work with management to make changes that are beneficial to teachers, students and the district as a whole.
For example, I worked with the superintendent and head of computer services to assemble a group of teachers to meet monthly to create a “responsible usage” policy for the district, regarding teachers using Facebook and other social media. Another time, I voiced teacher concerns about our web filtering software, which wasn’t allowing teachers to access educational videos that they wanted to use during instruction. I worked with administration to figure out how to work within the parameters of our software and allow teachers to use the websites they wanted.
In Sylvania, 100% of our teachers are dues-paying members, which is great, but I also work to get teachers to do more than pay dues, to get involved and become leaders. That means working with other local association leaders to plan association-sponsored social events like a district-wide breakfast before our August teacher in-service and encouraging people to get their feet wet, by being building reps or delegates to OEA conferences. These efforts continue to keep our local association strong, and new leaders emerge. This year, three of our seven executive board members are new.
My perspective on the teacher’s union has changed drastically over the course of my fifteen years of teaching. Through the years, I have learned all the benefits of membership and the opportunities that the union provides. I’m thankful that I made the choice to get involved with my local, and I hope that others in the profession will get involved too, so they can take advantage of these same benefits and opportunities, in order to grow as educators.
By Dan Greenberg, Sylvania Education Association