Teachers Unions Need to Adapt, Just Like the Rest of Us

·5 min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

When President Joe Biden in March 2021 gave his first primetime address, he astutely pointed to the one thing that has united almost all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic: a shared sense of sacrifice.

“We all lost something—a collective suffering, a collective sacrifice, a year filled with the loss of life and the loss of living for all of us,” Biden told the nation.

Parents of school-aged children, like myself, are among those who have incurred a terrible cost throughout the pandemic, and continue to do so.

Many students had no in-person instruction for a year-and-a-half. “Remote learning” is widely accepted to have been an abject failure. In places where schools are now reopened, rigid COVID-19 safety rules of questionable efficacy have made the typical school experience a shell of itself. The mental and educational tolls exacted on innocent kids may never be fully calculated. People are starting to notice.

Despite all this, parents continue to be told they must be flexible, and so we have been.

The Chicago Teachers Union Takes Kids and Parents Hostage

Most Americans learned to adapt because COVID and its variants couldn’t care less about our plans or our priorities. The coronavirus runs the show. So, the masses—poor American working stiffs who grind it out every day and pay taxes to fund teachers’ salaries and pensions—learned to make adjustments.

But two years into the pandemic, many teachers’ unions simply refuse to be flexible. They won’t adapt to changing circumstances the way the rest of us have been expected to over the past two years. Again, people are starting to notice.

I recently wrote a column blasting teachers unions for orchestrating—after Christmas break—the brief shutdown of the Chicago School District. Without much warning, the nation’s third-largest school district was shuttered when Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey announced that a majority of the members had opted for remote learning. Sharkey claimed that the district had failed to make the schools and classrooms safe enough for returning teachers.

The Chicago Teachers Union Takes Kids and Parents Hostage

More than 340,000 students were forced to stay home for several days. Parents had to scramble, at the last minute, to formulate a plan to watch over their children while also going to work at the jobs that sustain their families.

Ironically, you would think an arm of organized labor would intuitively understand the value of serving the collective. So much for the so-called partnership between teachers and parents.

Teachers from all around the country responded to the column by instinctively attacking me. Many challenged me to step away from my keyboard and spend a day teaching in the classroom.

Been there, done that. I was a substitute public school teacher for five years in my twenties to support my writing habit. My wife served as a Montessori teacher and dyslexia specialist for twice as long, and now she’s studying to work with students as a speech therapist.

But we’re also parents of three teenagers, and so we are privy to what other parents think of the public school system. It’s not good.

What was more troubling was the fact that so many people seemed willing to go along with the ridiculous idea that a critique of a teachers’ union was by extension an attack on rank and file teachers—who my critics seemed to imply were above reproach.

The response got me thinking about how many Americans have been conditioned to view unions. Do we consider any criticism of police unions as an attack on individual police officers? And do we require experience in law enforcement before one can comment on police matters? Certainly not.

Americans need to understand and accept the idea that unions—no matter who they represent—are a creature all their own, and they’re often quite effective at doing what they are supposed to do: protect their members’ interests, even if doing so undermines the interest of society.

And public sector unions, unlike private sector unions, don’t negotiate with bosses or corporations. Although they serve the public, they negotiate with elected officials whose campaigns are often funded by those same public sector unions.

Technically, teachers work for the taxpayers, which means they work for parents. But you would never know it, thanks to the outsized influence of teachers’ unions. Parents have zero control over their “employees.”

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Public school teachers and administrators like to claim that parents are full partners in their child’s education. It’s mainly a device to encourage parents to make sure that their children do their homework.

That is just as well, because, in this bizarre partnership, the bosses (parents) don’t have a say about whether their employees (teachers) even show up to work in the morning. And when the parent needs help educating their child during the pandemic, while also juggling the demands of their job, their partner is often nowhere to be found.

This is no longer an internal matter for the school system to sort out. It has grown larger than that and spilled into the political arena. In the U.S., more and more parents believe that they lack control over their kids’ schooling. And for the millions who endured 18 months or more of remote learning, they believe it even more than they used to.

It’s true that, in the private sector, organized labor is struggling. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 10.8 percent of private sector workers are unionized.

But, on the other hand, public employee unions are doing just fine. And they’re going to continue to do well as long as they can successfully push around Democratic politicians who want to continue to stay in their good graces. Their members are still incredibly loyal and primed to defend them whenever the unions are attacked.

Whether they accept it or not, teachers—and the unions that represent them—are part of that society. They’re part of the collective. They need to start acting like it.

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