An idea: Teachers create a National Congress of Educators

In my last post, I asked myself and my reader(s), “Why doesn’t our word carry weight?” Shortly thereafter, I closed the post by asserting, “It is long past due that teachers define the image of the profession themselves and from within their own ranks.” 

The next day, I still agreed with myself. However, I hadn’t given anyone, including myself, any ideas on HOW to do such a thing.

I first started thinking about the organizations for teachers that exist today and their role in education.

The most obvious place to start is with the teachers’ unions, notably the American Federation of Teachers and the National Teachers Association.

When I first started teaching, I became a member of my local union. They were engaged in reform of the salary schedule and I believed in their cause. Several years later, I was offended by the caustic attitude and approach of our state’s union leaders, and I also disagreed with them on several key issues, so I stopped my membership.

A quick Google search says there are 3. 7 million teachers in the U.S. The NEA’s website says they have 3 million union members and the AFT site states they have more than 1 million members.

So do teachers keep getting pushed around then? Why aren’t the unions more powerful in affecting public policy? To the Google machine!

I found a slightly-dated article on Politico that outlined some of the problems and includes this quotation:

“People increasingly view teachers unions as a problem, or the problem,” David Menefee-Libey, a politics professor at Pomona College who studies education politics. That’s a striking shift, he said, because “for decades the unions were viewed as the most likely to contribute to the improvement of public education.”

Why do people view unions as a problem? According to several articles, the problem stems from the unions’ position on hiring and firing teachers. So maybe I’m not as much of an outlier as I thought, because one of my reasons for stopping my union membership was this very topic.

Unions exist to defend and support their members. The existence of unions have been of historical importance to our country, and I think they fulfill an important role in protecting workers’ rights.

Here we have the crux of the problem: the purpose of unions, to protect workers’ rights, has largely dealt with issues of money and legality of hiring or firing practices. These are not the same as professional standards.

So we have a loss of public and professional faith in the unions, but a growing (or continuing, depending on your perspective) frustration from educators who feel they have little autonomy in their jobs and little power to affect change. Makes for a bunch of pissed off people, and certainly an unhealthy system.

Moving away from unions, I began thinking about other educational organizations. It is a testament to educators and our desire for professionalism that so many exist. For example, I joined the National Council of Teachers of English and the Florida Council of Teachers of English while still in graduate school. I maintained my membership with both until last year, when I moved. I love these organizations deeply, because they gave me a sense of professionalism more than anything else in my teaching career.

In the last five years, NCTE has increased its advocacy efforts by in large part by establishing an office in Washington, D.C. and implementing an annual Advocacy Day. They have created a Policy Platform and post recommendations for policymakers. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics also has a page on its site dedicated to advocacy, as does the National Council for Social Studies. The National Science Teachers Association has its own Communications, Legislative, & Public Affairs team.

So based on their particular subject area or at which level they teach (elementary, secondary, etc.), there exist organizations which classroom teachers can join. But what about an overall body or organization that doesn’t delineate between grade level or subject? To the Google machine!

Fairly quickly, I came across the American Association of Educators, an organization with which I was unfamiliar. The AAE defines itself as a “non-union professional educators association established in 1994 by nationally recognized educators who saw the need for a professional organization that focused on student achievement without an emphasis on partisan politics.”  According to their website, the AAE provides “professional services” and “only take policy positions on issues germane to education.” They also have liability insurance for members, but they do not engage in collective bargaining. Mainly, they seem to define themselves by what they are not – a union. Their policies seem entirely based on a membership survey, and I couldn’t find anything about a conference or process for discussion.

After thinking about all of these organizations, I still feel something is missing. There’s a void somehow.

My dream: that teachers create their own nationwide forum for discussing, debating, disagreeing, and deciding on our education system. Teachers’ professional opinions should play a larger role in education policy. But “should” is about as far as we’ve gotten. We must take action as well – action that sets our professionalism on display and makes us better professionals at the same time.

So I’m going to throw this idea out there into the online world: what if we had a National Congress of Educators?

Bear with me as I share the bare-bones of my idea. There are two houses: the Delegation and the Body.

The Delegation would be modeled after the House of Representatives. Teachers can run to be a Delegate from their region. Only current classroom teachers have the power to vote on their Delegate. These Delegates serve to represent their delegation of teachers by gathering their opinions and using that information to vote on issues at the NCE Annual Meeting (more on that in a minute).

The Body would be modeled after the Senate. Organizations that represent educators of various sects (subject area, grade level, specialization) would have long-term seats in this house and would provide the kind of wisdom that comes from a long history of working with educators on a national level.

Every summer, the National Congress of Educators would convene. Everyone is welcome to attend, just like any citizen can watch a session at the Capitol, but only Delegates can take the floor to speak or cast a vote in the Delegation, and only representatives from the organizations in the Body can speak or cast a vote. All of this business would be conducted in public.

The Delegation and the Body can put forth policy, legislation, or recommendations. Ideally, committees would be formed to reflect and refine these items before they come up for a vote, just like in the government. Again, all of this would  be done openly and publicly since every teacher has a voice and a vote. It would seem natural that joint committees may even form to create a constant bridge between the Delegation and the Body.

Something like the NCE would make every teacher part of the process of reform and on our own terms. Maybe we wouldn’t have power at first, but I’d like to dream that eventually an organization that was created by U.S. educators in order to better U.S. education would mean something to the counterparts in our state capitals or Washington, D.C.

The Women’s Rights movement started with a meeting. Why can’t the same be true for teachers?