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Are Pittsburgh Public Schools holding students back?

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Look, I know that public school teachers should never complain when our union mistreats us—we’re supposed to be “union strong” and never air the dirty laundry. But I keep hearing about misstep after educational misstep during the coronavirus crisis, and I can read between the lines.

It’s not the administration’s fault that teachers are tripping over red tape when they try to help their students. It’s teachers’ unions.

Take Marijke Hecht’s recent article about inequities and failures in Pittsburgh Public Schools, for example. I strongly agreed with Hecht’s call for remote learning opportunities and eased protocol. Especially during a crisis, schools have to remain flexible or else they’ll fail.

But as a former Western Pennsylvania teacher, I was surprised that Hecht did not name the primary culprit for this institutional ineffectiveness: the teachers’ union. Throughout the coronavirus quarantine, teachers’ priority has been keeping their students on track—but the union has focused on warning teachers against straying one inch from their contracts, including initial bans on e-learning.

I’m no longer a union member or a public school teacher—so I can tell the truth without having to worry about getting “called in to the office” like an unruly student. If you think I’m exaggerating, you’ve clearly never been a teacher or administrator who tried to speak up.

Teachers get into this career because we love learning and want to pass that love on to our students. Even in crisis, teachers want to continue educating as much as possible—but they’re being snagged on outdated contracts that unions force them to swear allegiance to, even when those contracts ban distance learning and other outside-the-box solutions, causing their students to miss weeks or months of valuable education time.

I remember when I tried to use Facebook as a classroom tool about 5 years ago. Our principal, backed by the union, banned me from doing so—and told me it wasn’t appropriate for school. But right next door, another teacher used a learning tool with all the same processes as Facebook, except very clunky and very expensive. My simple idea—um, Facebook is free—was silenced.

That’s how the teachers’ union thinks and how they work. To innovate in any way, you have to have their permission. Never mind that teachers joined the profession because we are creative and adaptive leaders. Political control prevents us from escaping the cookie cutter rules that stifle our ability to tailor our teaching to the needs of the students.

Every situation and learning environment is unique, so why should every teacher be forced to follow decades-old rules? It makes no sense.

But teachers’ unions have managed to secure nothing but positive PR—to the extent that even critical articles like Marijke Hecht’s make everything the fault of the administration, while the union isn’t even mentioned. That’s because teachers’ unions spend most of their time and dues revenue on “communications”—a constant stream of marketing emails, ads, articles, and mailers to convince parents and teachers of what a good job they’re doing with their coronavirus response.

The end result for us teachers? Instead of fulfilling our purpose in entering this profession, to help kids, now we have to stand aside while we wait for the President of a massive private corporation to micromanage how we do it.

Who made them the boss?

You can’t blame teachers or administrators—everyone’s scared of the union. Besides the threat of losing the career you love, there is also a huge social pressure to toe the line. Your employment, your work environment, and even your social circle depends on being “a member in good standing.” Not to mention the promise of special treatment if you become a union rep’s favorite.

If we want to prepare our education system to handle a crisis, educators need a little space to innovate—a little more local control. We can’t maximize our students’ potential, or our potential as teachers, with the union breathing down our necks.

Charissa Daman is a former high school teacher from the Pittsburgh, PA area.

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