The Army of Angry Teachers — When Success Breeds Failure

By 07/20/2011

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It must feel empowering for teachers upset by current developments to hold big rallies with thousands of union members chanting slogans.  They must finally feel like their voice is being heard, as Diane Ravitch, Valerie Strauss, and the new breed of teacher union advocates make their case.

While this may all feel like success to the teacher unions, I suspect that it is actually breeding failure.  The unions succeed by intimidating politicians with their raw power while convincing the public that teacher unions love their children almost as much as the parents do.  Maintaining this double-game is essential because it disarms parents, media elites, and others who might otherwise mobilize against teacher unions and apply their own direct pressure to politicians.

As long as teacher unions act like Mary Poppins to parents, media elites, and others, the general public is willing to suspend their normal inclination to desire choice and competition in the goods and services they consume.  Mary Poppins is an extension of the family and we don’t apply market principles to our family.  The family is a refuge from the rough and tumble of the market which is instead governed by a sense of mutual obligations and affection.  Where the family ends, the market begins and people think the market needs choice and competition to stay healthy.

But when the public face of the teacher unions is the Army of Angry Teachers, they no longer seem like Mary Poppins and begin to look a lot more like longshoremen beating their opponents with metal pipes.  Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss may provide psychological comfort to angry teachers (some of whom seem so irate that they may need professional psychological help to manage their anger), but it undermines the double-game that is at the heart of the teacher union strategy.

Giant mobs of yelling protesters and blogs filled with tirades may increase the intimidation politicians feel, but it seriously undermines the image of teachers as an extension of our family.  And as that Mary Poppins image is significantly eroded, media elites and the general public will increasingly think of education as something in the marketplace that requires choice and competition.  And this erosion is extremely hard for teacher unions to reverse.

What feels like success to angry teachers is actually sowing the seeds of failure for the teacher union.

-Jay P. Greene

Comment on this article
  • Roxanna Elden says:

    Then again, people get pretty angry when members of their family are attacked, or when they are insulted publicly by non-family members… especially those who show little understanding of family dynamics, and who certainly seem to have the ear of plenty of “media elites.”

  • Kronosaurus says:

    So what is the alternative? Should teachers roll over and become the humble servants of corporate paymasters? It’s funny that you use Mary Poppins to describe teachers. Mary Poppins is a nanny, a servant. Yes, Jay has a point, but in doing so he insults the public and assumes that anyone who goes to a protest is “angry” and selfish. Gives real insight into the mind of a modern conservative. Jay would rather have teachers shut-up and do whatever the authorities tell them to do.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with teachers getting angry abut policies they dislike. And I don’t think there is anything inappropriate with them organizing, protesting, and chanting angry slogans. The freedom to assemble is an essential part of freedom and is protected by the U.S. Constitution as much for teacher unions as for any other organized interest group.

    But that’s the point — teacher unions are just like any other organized interest group. And the more that the general public and media elites come to believe that education looks a lot like the scramble for benefits and interests that occurs in other enterprises, the less willing they will be to exempt education from the rigors of choice and competition that they apply to those other enterprises.

  • Male Teacher says:

    Do you use the term “Mary Poppins” because teaching has long been a female dominated profession? Or were you just unaware of how offensive and degrading it is?

  • Mr. Hand says:

    Not to sound to harsh, but as I teacher I find it very disrespectful and downright rude for you to compare teachers to Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins was a nanny. As a nanny, she did not have to endure getting a masters degree, pass numerous teaching exams, and deal with upwards of 150 inner city students a day. Teachers are committed, life-long PUBLIC EMPLOYEES. All we want is to maintain the fair and decent working conditions that we have attained through collective agreements with our employers.

  • Larry Sand says:

    Excellent piece, Jay. The teachers unions have done a good job of convincing teachers that they are being victimized by the vast right wing conspiracy. What teachers need to realize is that what union bosses like to call “teacher bashing” is nothing more than anger at the unions for blocking every type of education reform imaginable, as well as the unions doing their level best to stop school districts’ attempts to fire bad and even criminal teachers. As such “teacher union bashing” would be more accurate.

  • Hugh says:

    I must say that while the Mary Poppins analogy is demeaning, I agree that the behavior of teachers’ unions is problematic.

    Although I am a teacher, I often feel that the union does not reflect my concerns. I am frequently embarrassed by the beligerance and chanting of slogans. Frankly, it lacks professionalism, and has a “teamster” feel to it.

    I once attended a rally at City Hall in downtown Manhattan and swore I would never attend another one.

    Unfortunately, I can see how people outside the teaching profession have a very negative perception of the teacher’s union. Too bad that those whom I pay to represent me often resort to hate-mongering and have frequently failed to cultivate reasonable and nuanced positions.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    To Kronosaurus, (Sensitive) Male Teacher, Mr. Hand, and Hugh —

    If you think Mary Poppins is subservient, you are obviously not familiar with the story.

    Besides, I was describing how teacher unions would like to portray themselves to disarm political opposition, not what I think they are really like.

  • Smokin' Joe says:

    Mary Poppins reference aside, Greene makes a relevant point: that teachers are fearful and respond ‘negatively’ through union rallies.

    I have been teaching for 18 years and really enjoy teaching. However, we have been placed on the political chopping block with a decreasing national tax base, family migration to cities that offer better financial opportunities, fewer children in schools, more rigorous test and curriculum standards, state takeovers of school districts, union-busting and tenure-abolishing legislation, and more. We feel the pinch and fear the uncertainty of the future, but still we have the power to do something about our jobs.

    Now is the time — our chance — to be part of the solution, despite that we don’t like where our districts are heading and that education, in general, is being changed without our input. We can either take up placards and protest OR get into the discussion and tell our politicians what we really want and need to be successful in the classrooms.

    If politicians are apprised of our challenges in the classroom, our fears of financial instability, that a happy teacher who still loves his or her vocation but understands what is at stake for the politicians and school districts, then they might be willing to consider us as advocates for doing what is right for every citizen of the school community.

    Look, we can either join them or fight them. If we fight them, we will nmot win. The bottom line is that budgets are not what they used to be in the boom times of just a few years ago. Like in the auto industry, we must either reinvent or refocus our goals or fall off the educational map. Ford did it; we should too! (Please find a recent article in the Michigan Chronicle newspaper on this topic, approximately one month ago. You ought to read the article before you comment.

    I enjoy being a teacher and a member of my union; however, I’m laidoff and fear that I won’t be in a classroom this fall. Yes, I’m scared but reached our to my state senator and representatives and pledged my willingness to help them decide what’s best for our students. Even if I am forced out by the looming budget deficits, I’ll know and respect the hard work went into the decisions, despite that it might not be in my favor.

    I’m an average Joe and this is my opinion.

  • Adam Smith says:

    So what’s wrong with Mary Poppins?

  • Dee Woods says:

    I grew up around the teachers union, and those people who worked to raise the bar so teachers could be looked as a professionals are not happy with the attitude we see today.
    Back some 50 years ago the union was more grassroots with the teachers controlling their organizaiton instead of what is happening today. Teachers have to realize they have a choice to be treated like professionals, or to be treated like a Hoffa teamster. They can no longer have it both ways with so many of us not belonging to unions & with many of us not wanting to belong to unions. In states such as mine, the teachers have no choice to decide whether they want to belong to the union or not. In our society that is unacceptable that they are forced to pay union dues just so they can get a teaching job in public schools. People should have choices, and wanting to belong to a union is one thing, but feeling forced is another.
    I was told by someone who once was a big supporter of our state’s teacher union that sometimes in labor movements the pendulum swings too far to an extreme and needs to balance itself out. For too long the pendulum has been to an extreme with the teachers union, and it is offensive when teachers march with picket signs saying this is about the kids. BULL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It is about union bosses, and their power, control, and their salaries and benefits.

    I love teaching- it is an honorable PROFESSION-but I dislike stupidity. I am very tired of seeing teachers pulled around by the nose by the some union boss. Not all teachers want to be a union patsy.

  • Richard says:

    In Connecticut, the state (CEA) and local teachers unions do nothing but collect dues and give lip service when necessary. They do not fight for teachers who are targeted for harassment, intimidation, and wrongfully placed on performance growth evaluation plans. In Connecticut, the CEA has never lost a failure to represent claim against them, despite countless teachers producing documentation at Labor Board hearings requesting grievances be filed on their behalf. The Connecticut Labor Board consistently rules against teachers on the grounds “there is no evidence that the union representatives discriminated against the teacher.” If a teacher’s job is on the line, and the union fails to file requested grievances, that constitutes Failure to Represent and discrimination.
    Discrimination is unfairness and inequity, therefore Connecticut’s Labor Board is repeatedly guilty of discrimination by way of its rulings. The entire process is corrupt, all the labor lawyers know it, but they continue taking fees from teachers needing help, when the outcomes are guaranteed to favor the unions. Who would have ever imagined that the day would come when dedicated and competent teachers are denied the most basic protections of law?

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