The other day, one of my classes was talking about education. A very conservative student was trying to argue for charter schools and voucher programs. I said, “While I can see why people see these programs as valuable in theory, in practice, they don’t result in better education or better schools. Louisiana is one of the most enthusiastic adopters of the voucher system, and now they have public funding of poorly-run religious schools that have no accountability.”
This student then argued that teacher unions are bad, because they want to keep shitty teachers in the classroom. The amount of willpower it took for me to not roll my eyes was pretty epic. I don’t understand how people can be anti-union, except that they are told incorrect and stupid things about unions. You can’t possibly know the history of unions and be against them. (They are what brought you weekends, worker’s comp, maternity leave, the minimum wage, 8-hour workdays, workplace safety regulations, employer-based health care, retirement benefits, and child labor laws.) And there are no more pro-child and pro-education groups than teacher’s unions. I told my students, “I don’t even know if I’ll have a job next semester. Every semester, I have to apply again for jobs. I make less than $2000 a class per semester. I have no health insurance, no benefits. This isn’t good for you as students.” Teachers who don’t know if they can pay their bills this month, who can’t eat well, who can’t see a therapist when they are depressed or a doctor when they are sick can’t be good teachers. They can’t focus on pedagogy when they’re distracted by those other concerns. Teachers that can’t afford gas or to have their cars fixed when they break may have to cancel classes or avoid student conferences. Teachers that work part-time at different institutions every semester or every year aren’t committed to their university and can’t establish much of a relationship with that university or their department. Rewriting your cover letter, resumes, and syllabi every semester takes time away from the current classes being taught. All this leads to a worse education for students. This is just as true for secondary and primary education as it is for college education.
It isn’t just about having crappy pay, though. Working semester by semester means that teachers may feel uncomfortable or worried about being good teachers. When many colleges evaluate adjuncts based solely on student evaluations, teachers may try to give students the education they want (easy and full of grade inflation) rather than a good one. Hell, I was fired from Houston Community College Northwest for my feminist “agenda,” which they determined solely from my syllabus (because I have my students analyze sex and purity rhetoric and read the feminist pedagogy text Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks). Were I not more stubborn and supported partially by a partner, I may have switched to a more conservative, and less effective, instruction, which would have been bad for my future students. If I wasn’t an adjunct, I wouldn’t have been fired, without notice or review, two weeks into the class. That kind of system works to make instructors less innovative and less difficult.
When a teacher union fights for job security, tenure, higher pay, and better benefits for educators, that is a fight students should be invested in. Healthier and more stable teachers leads to a better education for their students.
My student actually responded to my spiel with, “I bet you can’t get jobs because all those spots are filled by tenured people, then.” I snorted, because that’s ridiculous. The reason jobs like mine exist is because colleges are hiring less tenure-track instructors, and giving tenure to less professors. Universities are hiring more and more part-time and adjunct instructors, who cost less (because we get paid less and get little or no benefits). The adjunct system exists as it is today because too many people agree with my student, and think that tenure is a scam and full-time educators are suckling at the public’s teat.
I think my student is well-meaning, but if you think education is important, then you need to support teachers and teacher unions. What they fight for is nothing more than better educational environments for students, because no teacher (even college professor) got into this profession for the pay. But I shouldn’t be on food stamps, or looking forward to being in debt because of student loans for the rest of my life. I shouldn’t have to worry that my difficult class will lead to my having negative student evaluations and no job next semester. I shouldn’t have severe depression that I can’t treat because there’s no way in hell I can get decent health insurance. Those are not the crosses I should bear just be an educator, particularly when they affect the education I can provide. I’ve heard some people say that if teachers want more money, it’s because they don’t have enough “passion” for teaching. Bullshit. It’s because of that passion that I say we need to do better by our teachers, because I know that when we don’t, we can’t provide as good of an education. It’s because I care deeply about the students I teach that I advocate for higher teacher pay, better benefits, and more job stability. It’s because of my passion for teaching that I support teacher unions.