2011: a tough year to be a teacher

protesters in Madison, Wisconsin, January 2011
At the start of 2011, as the public in the Arab Crescent revolved toward democracy, it seemed American society was leaning in a reactionary direction. Three years into the “Great Recession,”  the American people were hurt, looking for someone to blame, and giving an unkind, accusing glance at their public servants. Look at those unionized, pensioned workers, with their tax-payer funded benefits and job security. And those teachers have their summers off!

The American teacher, a naturally agreeable, reasonable, and usually feminine creature, was an easy target.

But in Wisconsin, as the protests mounted, it appeared that the working class was ready to put up a fight against those who would take away their negotiated benefits.  In images not present in the USA since the 1930s or 40s, Firefighters and cops made common cause with their public service brothers and sisters to put up a consistent and spirited (if ultimately unsuccessful) fight against the gutting of collective bargaining rights.

When the history of 2011 is made, I believe the two-month “occupation” of the state capitol in Madison will be seen as precursor to the “occupations” that began on Wall Street in August.  Among its “victories,” were revelations of the anti-union agenda of Walker’s team and an undeniable awareness of the stakes in the struggle for resources between capitalists and workers. The Madison protests may have “radicalized” some dormant members of the “99%.”

While Governor Walker may be recalled in 2012 and union-busting legislation overturned, the damage to Wisconsin teachers has been done. I know anecdotally of one who has suffered (with the loss of her salary scale and increased pension payments and insurance costs for her family) a 40% reduction in her income.  She and her family are struggling now, and she is wondering whether to end her lifelong commitment to serving the children of the state. Her own children need her more. Yet her family’s suffering, to Wisconsinites who wanted someone to pay for the recession, was a desirable outcome. 
But in my opinion, teachers and other public service workers have functioned as good proxies for the real sources of the public’s rage in 2011–those who got un-merited advantages off the public’s trust and profited at the expense of the great majority.

In November of 2011 in Ohio, the trend of Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan was temporarily reversed, and so it is possible that public opinion is tipping in a more progressive or moderate direction, but the Spring session in Springfield and other state capitals, when more “pension reform” legislation is going to be voted on, will be telling. Since the global economy shows no signs of recovery, one can imagine that there will be more nastiness, as the “fight at the water hole” continues in its necessarily brutal fashion.

Adding to the misery of the Illinois public school teacher in 2011 was the outrageous behavior of those whom teachers had expected to champion their and students’ causes. In chief lobbyist of the Illinois Federation of Teachers Steve Preckwinkle, anti-teachers union forces had their poster child. The Chicago Tribune reports of his and others’ selfish behavior gave a black eye to all honorable union workers, the evidence of his sleazy collusion with law-makers in Springfield being sadly undeniable. His case should send an imperative message for integrity and reform to those who claim to represent the honest working men and women of the state. Without perfect integrity, the union cannot expect any allegiance.

2012 may be a better year for the teacher, for there are reasons to hope: the message that schools need reform has definitely “tipped;” it is everywhere. Post- “Waiting for Superman,” the oligarchs have brought out their super-men, the unions have their plans on the table, and there is common cause to fix the well-intentioned but symbolic NCLB. There is talk of teacher empowerment, new models for learning and schooling that do not rely solely on standardized testing, a critical re-examination of curriculum and pedagogy, and with ever-improved and cheaper technology, increased accountability and transparency, hand-maidens to honest reform.


Ours is an age of revolution, and when, asks Emerson, would we rather be born?

If there is any period one would desire to be born in, — is it not the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side, and admit of being compared; when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope; when the historic glories of the old, can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era? This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.

Let us hope that a year from now, the Wikiness will report on the good things we have done with the “rich possibilities of the new era.”

3 responses to “2011: a tough year to be a teacher”

  1. Nice distillation, Andrew. I thought this point was particularly strong: “The American teacher, a naturally agreeable, reasonable, and usually feminine creature, was an easy target.” That's really at the heart of why Ohio's measure was overturned. It included firefighters and police officers, and that both threatened the sense of safety of otherwise unconcerned voters, and also provoked an unusually aggressive workforce demographic into action.I do understand (and experience, honestly) the fundamental indignation people feel when they are being pressed to be ever more entrepreneurial, adaptive, and just plain hard working in order to navigate the current economy, while teachers as a professional whole can seem/appear inflexible by comparison. Add continual tax hikes and news stories about the failure of public schools to perform, and the conflict is inevitable.What I do not understand is why the poor performance, privileges and benefits of professional politicians are not the primary focus of these types of feelings. All the same dynamics are there, except that teachers are generally loved and politicians are generally hated. Why aren't they catching all this heat?If we're all looking for a scapegoat, maybe what the teachers' unions need to do is redirect the fury of the public toward the politicians. I know that teachers typically look for a more cooperative solution, but…

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  2. Thanks for your contribution, Michael. I agree that it would be wise of unions to deflect the public's anger at the politicians and private interests who are to blame for our current woes. Have you seen “Inside Job”? According to that analysis, “the real sources of the public’s rage in 2011–those who got un-merited advantages off the public’s trust and profited at the expense of the great majority” are the politicians and their monied patrons.One hopes that union leadership will claim whatever moral authority they have to decry the wrong rightly.

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  3. I did see “Inside Job”, and I think it's happening all over again with student loan debt. It would be nice to believe that kind of collusion between banks and government will be stopped, but it might be easier to educate the public about debt and defensive personal finance.

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