Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It Happened to Me and It Can Happen to You

It seemed like a rather benign task: Write a blog entry on “Why Teachers Like Us Support Unions”. After all, I could write about the historical perspective on how unions fought for and established fair working conditions for all Americans such as the 5 day/40 hour work week, workman’s compensation and unemployment insurance. I could write about how teachers’ unions in particular have fought for improved conditions in schools for BOTH teacher and student such as smaller class sizes, availability of books and supplies, cleanliness and security.

But as I sat writing I realized the one, most important thing my union has done for me, I can’t write about it. Oh, I’m able to write about it. I just can’t, at least not in detail. Let me explain.

Right now there is a great deal of talk going on in our nation about bullying. Playground and cyber bullying get the most attention. But the one I want to talk about is workplace bullying. I want to tell you my story, of how grateful I was to have a union, with all its protections, standing behind me.

One September, just as school was starting, I received a phone call offering me the job I had been hoping for all summer. “One thing I should tell you,” the voice on the other end said,”some people think the principal can be difficult to work with.” I like to think I have a natural ability to get along with most everyone, even difficult people. The secret is to work hard, listen well and look at things from other perspectives. And I have worked for difficult people before, so I jumped right in.

Three definitions of bullying:
---To force one's way aggressively or by intimidation (thefreedictionary.com)
--- the act of intimidating a weaker person to make them do something
--- repeated oppression, psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful

My first year I witnessed bullying like I never knew existed. I was brought in to witness many sessions between this administrator and other teachers making me look and feel complicit. I worked long and hard to establish a relationship with the abused hoping to restore a sense of worth and normalcy to their work life and credibility to my own. I hope I was successful. Many could not stand up to this type of pressure at work. About one third transferred after the first year, not just teachers but EVERY category of employee. One poor soul retired mid-year as this torment added to an existing medical condition making her life hell. I survived – and stayed.

I survived by walking that fine line between people; listening- but not speaking. I did my job the best I could, provided comfort and support when necessary but mostly tried to fly below the radar. I knew that the union was working to have this situation resolved. Secretly I prayed they would hurry. I wasn’t sure how long I could hold out. Year two - rumors are flying. The union has been working with central administration to find a solution. People are hopeful. One third of the staff is new. Smiles are painted on faces and I wonder how we are supposed to educate our students with the air so fragile we could all break into a million pieces with one sneeze. And then it happens to me.

I wish I could tell you what happened to me. I want you to know that I would never wish it on anyone - understand I mean anyone. The teacher in me is screaming: SUPPORTING DETAILS!! I could give you details, lots of them. After consulting an attorney, I started recording our conversations and making transcripts. I became the queen of documentation.

But you see, back then, I had my union to stand behind me shielding me from the capricious whims of a bullying administrator. And that administrator is still around. Only now, I may not have the protection of my union for much longer. So I must protect myself with my silence. And pray that my silence does not bring harm to someone else.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Business as Usual?

The Michigan Senate just passed the Emergency Financial Manager bill today. Your city, town or school district can be declared as having a "financial emergency" (think $715 per student budget cuts coming up) by our governor or a company he appoints. This manager will have supreme power to void all private contracts and collective bargaining agreements AND the power to dismiss elected representatives! BUT here's the rub - the EMF doesn't' have to be a PERSON - they have deemed it okay to be a CORPORATION. So, governor (or corporate appointee) declares your city/schools to be in an emergency...appoints a corporation to take over...dismisses your elected representatives...do you see something WRONG with this?

Now, if you have children you should be worried. What this means is that in an effort to slash budgets and without the constraints of collective bargaining agreements, the most experience teacher and school leader may be the first to go. Why? Well, of course, it only makes sense that you can get two first year teachers for every teacher you release that has 15 or more years experience. It's Walmart shopping for you child's education. This is not to put down first year teachers. But without that experienced teacher in the room next door, um...will little Johnny really learn the skills to be competitive in college?, or will we be fumbling for the light switch in the dark?

Think I'm crazy? I hope you're right. Because I still have a child to get through 6 more years of public education and I'll be happy to eat crow if it means quality for him. For those of you who feel righteous triumph, erroneously thinking this will only affect Detroit and the likes - don't kid yourself. Most school districts and soon cities will be on the brink of financial collapse if the new budget proposed by Rick Snyder is passed.

Hmmmm, I wonder if they thought to put a provision in the bill that prohibits any corporation named as an emergency financial manager - AND their subsidiaries - from doing business with the public entity? Well, they can't think of everything, now can they?