It’s time for the Annual Conventions of the teachers’ unions but I’m going to avoid the issues under debate and talk about some broader ideas that, as I see it, should be examined at the heart of Teacher Trade Unionism. With some luck we might discuss them on the edges of the Conventions.
First let’s mention what many teachers see as the problems their unions have. We hear about a leadership which is disconnected, unions that are unrepresentative and run a contrary agenda to members wishes, unions that cave at the sign of a government negotiator, unions that fail to communicate the real message of teachers.
I would rather say our biggest problem is our lack of ideas. Ideas about where want to go rather than the warmth of where we are, about how we are perceived by others and how to confirm or change the views they have about us, we should be talking about the way a teacher trade union should operate in the future.
I am convinced the structures of our union are designed to be democratic but structures are one thing, engagement with democracy is another. We see few elections to Standing Committee or CEC and poor turnouts for ballots. Many of our members are discontented, disengaged and disaffected, they need to know what their union stands for more than anyone, yet there seems to be a reluctance to define ourselves in terms other than opposition to whatever is proposed by other educational bodies. Teachers need something to believe in. They need the comfort of ideas.
Here’s what Tony Benn told the TUC in Britain: “the unions have hardly made any serious effort to explain their work to those who are not union members, even to the wives and families of those who are. You have allowed yourselves to be presented to the public as if you actively favoured the conservative philosophy of acquisitiveness…”.Tony Benn said that in 1974 and I think applies to most unions today.
So, what can be done?
The questions I’d wish to raise are simple but, I believe, fundamental ones. Having a conversation on ideas and allowing for a variety of responses which would allow us to address members concerns on how we talk about education, how we talk about educating, and what will education be like in the future. Talking to members might uncover many other issues of concern, but if we don’t talk to them we will never know what they want to discuss. Deciding that we need only examine our own consciences to know what members want is a recipe for disaster.
We need to restoke the flames of our teacher unions, restore their collective soul and shape them into what we want them to be. When we ask those questions we can start to communicate our ideas. Some fine contributions to this debate has come from Howard Stevenson. In this blogpost he distills down the prospective route for teachers’ unions to organising in the workplace, becoming a national voice on professional issues, and teacher unity. He is right about the managerialism at work in education, economics dominates every discussion on education. The quote above from Tony Benn is worth rereading here, he said then that the prevailing view of trade unions was that they were about money, what the reality was didn’t matter, that was the perception. When education becomes wrapped up in economics we make the mistake of making economics the reason for doing or not doing anything. We begin to accept that we are part of a system. Instead we should focus on critiquing the policy decisions which alienate us, and turn us from teachers into disenchanted robots who feel we have no way out but to lash out at our unions. There’s nothing wrong with having an education ‘system’, but developing a bureaucracy where data is prioritised over student or teacher well-being commodifies education. Our professional lives become stuff that can be bought and sold when education policy transforms parents and students into consumers.
Education issues in Ireland such as Junior Cycle reform, or the plight of many newer teachers, or the effects of austerity on education are often presented to us as necessary because of, or unfortunate byproducts of, economic forces nobody really has control over. We are all victims of this sorcery: like the audience at a magic show we know we’ve been tricked, we don’t know how, but we all go along for the ride. This makes it okay that we don’t consult professionals on reform, or allow hundreds of teachers to leave the country or leave kids without the mental health supports they need, it’s not how the trick is performed, it’s the end result that’s magical and diverting, briefly anyway.
But I’d like to say that in order to deal with these economic or political sleights of hand teachers should re-engage and reclaim their unions. Our unions could become places where we could talk about the transformation of education, setting the agenda, instead of waiting for the latest initiative to reject; where we critically reflect on the place of education and educators in our society instead of rejecting intellectualism; where we draw on the skills and expertise of our members to inform reasoned change and training. If instead we allow our unions to be weakened by replying to non-engagement with a shrug or to the situation of newer teachers with apathy we surrender our unions to those who wish only to tread water here in the present.
Acknowledging that ideas and research, knowledge and experience are central to a trade union’s reason-to-be should drive us on. Taking every opportunity to enter into dialogue with teachers in their schools, at branch meetings, or wherever should be a prerequisite for elected representatives, this would greatly benefit policy decision-making. Taking to members makes a union more democratic in its actions and clearer when it takes action.
Teachers talk all the time, they have a voice. If they were invited to express themselves on the future of education or the future of their unions and if we, the leaders of our unions are willing to listen to them we can create and propagate an agenda which, if not listened to by outside bodies, will incur our wrath. Only when we have a counter argument to remove every bolder they throw in the road will we know our own strength.
The challenge unions face, not just teacher unions I might add, is to carve out a discussion in which members, all members, not just the most involved, the most informed, or the most willing, will be encouraged to take part. This requires a serious internal dialogue. Only then, when we know what they think and want can we turn outward with our clearest message.
Without developing a means of dialogue with those who oppose our view, we cannot get to a position where our might can be exercised, for as long as we refuse to understand them or refuse to allow them to understand us, we cannot be confident that our ideas are worth standing over.
If I could finish with a wish for our future as teacher trade unionists it would be to create a movement which can look outward to other educational bodies with the expertise and knowledge we possess inside our profession now. Only through dialogue will we be confident that our message, our clear message, is being communicated to those who need to hear it.
There are, I suggest, meaningful ways of not merely “communicating Education”, but of communicating as Educators.