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On Professionalism and Unions, Etc.

I had an interesting conversation recently about the fact that the teachers’ union here is going to be negotiating a new contract soon. No one wants a strike, obviously, but there’s always that concern about work stoppage. An opinion was expressed that perhaps unions are a little out of date for teachers.

It was a provocative thought. Start bandying around that you’d like to get rid of a union and all sorts of people jump on your back from all sides of the issue in order to tell you how wrong/right you are and how the other side is so blind to the issues of the modern world. One of the unfortunate realities of the type of government and constitution we have is that the freedom of speech provisions tend to make people less concerned about listening to others and more concerned about pontificating to others. (Indulgent bonus self-irony: look what I’m doing right now on a blog!)

I’m of two minds about this particular situation (a statement that seems very common about me, looking back over past entries). On the one hand, the teachers’ union in Alberta has done amazing work in making sure that we are paid well and receive decent support from the government in terms of infrastructure, materials, and legalities. I would be a little confused at anybody who tried to argue that teachers in Alberta are flat-out underpaid or don’t receive good benefits in terms of insurance, materials, and infrastructure. Compared to the rest of the planet, we are doing just fine.

On the other hand, the direction that the professional world of education seems to be moving towards is one that traditionally does not include a union. Many of the steps taken in recent years in order to discover and codify the exact needs and requirements of a teacher’s job seem to point the finger towards educators developing into a ‘professional association’, and not a union at all.

The model works like this: lawyers, for example, (and other jobs traditionally considered ‘professions’) have no union, but a similarly functioning body called a professional association maintains standards across the industry. They have a unique set of ‘professional responsibilities’, a well-defined block of subject knowledge that is specific to their area which no one else has, and they self-regulate all of their activities (for example, lawyers are disciplined by other lawyers for breaching any of the above standards).

Brief aside: please don’t get tangled up in the definition of ‘profession’. I know it’s hazy, and I understand that this is a very ‘grey-area’ argument. Just bear with me.

I think that the way things are currently going of necessity dictates that the teachers’ unions will begin morphing into professional associations soon. At first it’s difficult to see how this would be different from the current situation, however, there are some key points. Right now, the body that regulates teaching on an overarching scale is still the government. All of the requirements for ‘good teaching’ are set out in legislation created by the provincial government. Many of the items set out in said legislation are in fact positive for the institution as a whole, but it would certainly be more comforting to me if the ones developing those requirements were the teachers themselves. However, it is not the purview of a union to create legislation or binding guidelines for the practice of their craft: they simply negotiate the terms with an body such as the government.

Part of the problem in defining this debate and seeing how it can be brought to fruitful conclusion is simply human nature. Inertia applies to behaviour as well as to falling objects. There is little appetite in many people for drastic change. Historically, we know that people in general fear change and resist it more the larger the change is. Teaching is no exception to this.

It’s true that if teaching is to change from a unionized structure into one of conglomerate, autonomous professional associations, there will be a large about of work required. Laws, codes of conduct, and university preparation programs will need to be looked at closely and overhauled if necessary. There are a lot of things that need to go right in order for that to happen.

For me, however, what is important is the fact that if we as teachers truly believe that we know how to teach, that we are not just ‘teaching because we can’t be doing’, and that we know what is best for our students, we should be taking charge of our own destiny. If our claim to knowledge and superior experience is legitimate, why shouldn’t we be the ones to tell what is and isn’t good teaching?

In the end this is not a statement for or against unions. The kind of organization is more or less irrelevant to the discussion, a side-effect of the true nature of our knowledge and legitimacy. This is a statement that I believe I actually do know something that is unique to my job, that someone else without my knowledge and experience is less qualified to do. If I’m not way off the mark (and as usual, I may be, and those who feel I am will doubtless let me know!), then I think a professional association is inevitably going to replace the teachers’ unions at some point in the future.

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