We’ve asked Rebecca Spears to periodically share her thoughts on advocacy, unions, teaching and public education. This is her first guest post. If you have a story to share, please let us know!
When I became a teacher, I had big dreams.
I wanted to teach in Chicago, inner-city. You know, where the kids needed me “the most” and I could make a difference. I was hired to teach in a self-contained seventh grade classroom in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. The day of my interview, my principal showed me off to any teacher that was in the building touting the fact that I had earned 99% on my Basic Skills test (as I had not yet received my certification scores in the mail). I should have recognized right then the bureaucracy at work and importance placed on test scores. The day I walked into my classroom, I was handed a piece of chalk and shown to my desk. I was told to take that piece of chalk and write the number of days until ISAT on the board for all students to see. There were no books, one lousy risograph machine for the entire K-8 building for which I had to supply the paper to make my copies, and classrooms packed to the gills with students who came to school just to get something to eat. If anything could be considered baptism by fire, it was my first year in that classroom. Damage control, all day every day.
No one had talked to me about a union. What was a union anyway?
The only thing I knew of a union at that point in my career was what my principal told me as I walked in to vote for the new union representative for my school:
“It would be in your best interest to vote for So-and-So.”
What did I know? I did as I was told. At the end of the year, I was out of a job. I found that out at a faculty meeting when the principal passed out the room assignments for the next year and my name was not on the page.
I felt that I had failed as a teacher every single day that year. I had walked in as a naive 22 year-old, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teacher, and walked out a jaded, battle-worn woman with a year of “teaching” under her belt and serious doubts about my future in education.
For the next four years, I worked at a charter school in Chicago. My school served the same demographic of students as my previous school, but had the funding and resources to actually teach them something. At first, it was an amazing experience. I had small class sizes, was able to pilot an after-school program for the students in the PreK-8 building, and became a leader among my colleagues. I was earning a bunch more money working at this extended-year charter school, and even receiving a 5% merit pay bonus at the end of each year. Slowly, however, I came to realize that out of the teachers in my school, only 6 in 10 held Bachelor’s degrees and an even smaller fraction of the faculty held degrees in education. I looked around and saw parents of my students manning classrooms of their own, in charge of the education of the very same students that left their public schools due to a desire to receive a “better” education. In short, I started to recognize the de-professionalization of my profession as a teacher within my charter school.
I am currently in my eighth year as a fifth grade teacher in Unit 5. I’ll be honest, I didn’t get involved in union work with UFEA until last year when my mentor retired from her position and my school needed a new representative. I took on the role as if taking on any other need within my school, because that’s what I do. That’s what we ALL do as teachers. We help out where we can and go the extra mile. Every. Damn. Day (thanks, Karl). In UFEA I have found the support of many, and have realized that it isn’t necessary to go it alone. I was privileged to attend the IEA Representative Assembly last spring as well as the NEA RA this summer. Standing in a room full of 10,000 educators from all across the country was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life.
It made me realize that together, we really can effect change.
Together, we have power.