Growing up, I learned that the original goal of unions was to fight for better wages and workers’ rights. I’ve also learned that unions, over the years, have gained much more power and nationally have become political power – it seems to be a different focus. I wasn’t worried. My original path led me to work as an accountant. There are no unions. But the change in profession led me directly to one of the most powerful unions: the teachers’ union.
I didn’t think about it much when I started teaching. There was always help from the local associations and it was easy to see how they were working with the principals to help navigate COVID for students and teachers; However, I became more aware of the power of the union and the focus on the national level as the pandemic changed the world.
Like most teachers, I did not enter the profession to pursue politics. I became a teacher because I loved learning and wanted to help future generations learn to love learning as well. Although I do not always feel successful in my original goal, I know that I do not want my students (or I) to become political pawns in anyone’s quest for power.
With COVID taking hold of the nation, it was easy to see every political party seizing power. Republicans were putting the vaccine in their back pockets; The Democrats had signed the January 6, 2021, Capitol riots in their country. What I didn’t anticipate was the impact of teacher unions, specifically on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) policy decisions regarding COVID regulations and school reopening.
In emails between the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the CDC, a senior administrator was reported to have “described the union as the ‘ideological partner of CDC’. The CDC’s wording was changed after a discussion by mail. email with AFT’s Senior Director of Health Issues, Kelly Trautner, her suggestion that “in the event of elevated outcomes for community transmission of a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, it may be necessary to update these new guidelines” to a CDC document without the science to support it, the York Post reported. The use of language from a union supporting Democratic politicians in the CDC document places that union at the center of the politics surrounding COVID.
Fast-forward to today and many teachers are concerned about raising students to grade level because COVID has severely impacted student learning. However, after hearing Randy Weingarten’s keynote speech at the 2022 AFT conference, I wondered what the union’s goal was – or what it should be. Is it ensuring students’ success and achieving their full potential, or is the mission political? Twenty-three minutes into her speech before Weingarten mentioned students and an institution that deals with reading skills, math and science. The first part of the speech addressed political issues such as the pandemic; trying to overturn the 2020 elections; gun laws; The war in Ukraine. and a conservative majority in the Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade, changed the way Miranda’s rights worked, and made other controversial decisions.
I chose to listen to Weingarten’s speech because I was looking for guidance about the upcoming school year, not an excuse blaming parental response on false narratives and social media. I was looking for ideas to motivate students in class, rather than detract from notes about the Trump administration’s handling of COVID. I was looking for inspiration that would help create a brighter start to the school year, rather than being told that “joy is an act of spiritual and political resistance”. I wasn’t looking for a political message. It won’t help teachers and students succeed this year. What will help is a concrete plan that addresses what students have missed in the past two years.
Weingarten is right that members of the AFT, which includes educators and health care workers, “carried the country through the toughest days of the pandemic.” The health care workers were on the front lines but the teachers also were hard working and trying to navigate distance learning with the students and trying to figure out the best way to serve the students. And while all of this is true, how do we navigate the learning lost during the COVID lockdown and distance learning? Weingarten hasn’t touched on that. Instead, she spoke of “extremists” attacking public schools, exacerbating the “Great Replacement Theory.” There may be some truth in that, but we need solutions, not blame.
Looking at the test data proves my point that teachers need help, not political rhetoric. In Illinois, for example, from 2017 to 2021, the percentage of ninth graders on track dropped from 87 percent to 82 percent. Much of that is due to COVID lockdowns; We need concrete guidelines and guidelines to help students catch up. It is no mystery that the pandemic has had a massive negative impact on student learning and progress. Weingarten should have given more than a passing hint in her speech as to how to compensate for these losses.
The AFT data supports the desire for a less political approach to education. An education survey showed that 81 percent of respondents believe that education has become too political. Additionally, the survey showed that respondents value a curriculum that focuses on core skills such as reading, math, and science. The survey also highlighted the importance of teaching money-related skills. critical thinking skills; and skills that will help students succeed in college and professional fields.
With the start of the 2022-23 school year, let’s look at schools as a gateway to the future of children, not the political future of the union. Listening to the end of Weingarten’s keyword, I remembered that I need to acknowledge the humanity of all people. I need to view my students as individuals who (hopefully) have a desire to learn – but most likely have issues that might hinder their learning. Perhaps this is what I need from her speech, not to focus on the strength of the union in politics. My goal is to engage my students, not politicize their education.
Kathryn Brang is a high school English and accounting teacher in Gillespie, Illinois, opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone.
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