From my earliest years as an educator I’ve seen my career ladder as union instead of administration. Despite all the times I’ve considered getting out of education altogether, the other types of jobs/careers I’ve applied for, and the energy I’ve spent on uncovering other avenues of earning a living wage, being a union member has kept me in the game. I’m not just saying that; I am literally an educator at this time solely due to the potential opportunities open to me as a member of the NEA.
All that, however, may be changing. Last night I realized I may not have what it takes to be a union leader.
Over the years I’ve watched other union leader educators, many of whom I deeply admire and implicitly trust, make concessions I always felt I could never make. I’ve sat on the sidelines and taken the hard line approach, finding alternative methods of achieving the same ends I “knew” were right. Some of my inflexibility – a characteristic I’d never otherwise identify myself as having – probably comes in part from knowing I’m not the one who makes the ultimate decisions since I’m not the one “in charge”. There is no real downside to my refusal to budge, to “cave”, to negotiate, because I’m not the one signing the final draft. It is completely acceptable for me to be the hardass because no harm can come from it, in essence.
Last night I learned differently. Last night I learned that it wouldn’t matter in some cases, because in some cases I’d still refuse to sit at the table and work on a deal I know in my heart is wrong, or pointless. When the other side is not willing to see reason, or we’ve come to an impasse, I cannot bring myself to play along, go along to get along, go through the motions so later I can say I did all I could to make things better.
At this point it’s no secret that the Delaware Department of Education has set an ultimatum before the Christina School District by way of a non-negotiable timeline for setting forth a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the establishment of plans to make three district schools “better”. In a public meeting, after intelligent discourse and acknowledgement of the futility of the situation, the elected school board members voted to sit in negotiations with the Department of Education in a good faith effort to bring this situation to the best possible conclusion.
The problem is we’ve already done that. Through months of meetings with educators, union leaders, families, community, administrators, and board members, the Christina School District has done its due diligence as a team to craft well-reasoned plans that would benefit the students of the identified schools. Officials from the district and the union came to agreement for the aspects of the plan that required contract modification. Everyone seemed to be united in the best way to proceed to affect real change in our schools. Sure, there are those who are not 100% pleased with the result, but in this case compromise is not about winning. In this case, compromise is about getting as close as possible to the best result for everyone to be successful.
And here’s where I realized I can’t do this.
I’m not willing to compromise my integrity and ethics to engage in what amounts to little more than a display of power. I’m not willing to allow a bad policy to destroy the communities it’s purported to save. I’m not willing to attend a negotiation when the main topics that need to be agreed upon are pre-declared non-negotiable. I’m not willing to allow my staff, admin, and students to be pawns in Chutes and Ladders: The Résumé-Padding Edition.
I’m calling it as I see it. I can’t do it. As a result, I believe I’m not cut from the cloth that makes a truly great union leader.
And if that’s what it takes to become one, perhaps I don’t want to be. I’ll leave that work to my betters.