Educators Must Stand Together
November 16, 2022
November 16, 2022
By Jennifer Naperala
Every year, our tasks increase along with expectations for our tolerance. Abuse from students, parents and, in some cases, administrators is no longer an anomaly. In fact, for many of us hostility has become part of our daily routine. Each task, expectation, and stressor draws from our ability to do our best work with students, harming the quality of education we’re able to deliver while making us easy, distracted targets for derision.
We need to reverse the trajectory of our exploitation.
None of us can do it alone, however: advocating for change as an individual is a fool’s endeavor. In fact, even 50 individuals advocating for the same outcome don’t threaten an established source of power. However, once organized, those individuals become an influential collective that cannot be ignored.
That potential for influence makes it imperative for Virginia’s educators to join their local chapter of the Virginia Education Association. Collaborating with one another through the VEA is the only way we will gain any control over our working environment.
It’s true that in Virginia, labor unions don’t have a particularly strong history. It’s also true that union membership in our business-friendly commonwealth won’t lend any relief to educators’ already suffering reputations.
But our General Assembly passed a historic law in 2021 that allows us to negotiate the terms of our contracts. That opportunity for collective bargaining is our best hope for more influential days ahead.
As to our likeability? Public educators and staff will not be respected in the way we deserve to be until we are able to perform our jobs effectively: Until we can focus on educating our students and until we can feel good about the instruction we provide in the classroom. We know that isn’t currently possible.
We will be effective once we relieve ourselves from the volume of tasks we currently must accomplish outside of educating. That to-do list will never become shorter simply from asking. It just won’t. Our work environment will only continue to become more hostile until we collectively insist on an end to the pressures.
Consider effective labor movements in history–steelworkers, miners, and postal workers–all ignored by their employers until they joined together and demanded safer working conditions.
Improving working conditions is especially tough for educators because the nature of what we do lends itself to the indefinite dismissal of our concerns. While labor movements before us succeeded by impeding the productivity of the employer, no teacher wants to impede their students’ education.
Consider this, though: our ever-growing list of additional duties is already obstructing us from giving our best to our students. Furthermore, contract negotiations do not equal strikes, nor will they ever lead to such a drastic end here in Virginia, where such strikes are illegal. Contract negotiation simply means we will know what is expected of us before we sign our contracts.
We have nothing to lose.
Currently, educator contracts almost always include the familiar clause that employee will be required to “perform other duties as necessary.” This nebulous expression has allowed school divisions to abuse our willingness to go above and beyond for our students by adding responsibilities unrelated to education.
When we protest duties unrelated to instruction, we are accused of not caring about our students. On the contrary, we protest precisely because we do care about our students: additional duties ad nauseum hinder our ability to educate.
Union membership and contract negotiation are the only ways to address unreasonable additional duties. While some labor movements have cost employees their lives, teachers around the commonwealth sacrifice around $30 a paycheck for their union dues; education support professionals, about $17 per paycheck.
Yes, times are hard; yes, we’re already underpaid. Union membership, though, is a financial investment that will pay tremendous dividends.
Look past the insurance perks, the travel deals, the free and worthwhile professional development, and look at the long term: that $17 to $30 a paycheck will show our school divisions that we’re not only organizing among ourselves, but that local chapters are also collaborating across Virginia. We will reap the benefits of organizing every day by lifting ourselves up together.
Contract negotiation will make Virginia school systems an appealing place to work. In a few years, students’ lessons on the educators’ labor movement of 2022 will be enhanced because their teachers won’t be frantically overburdened, ESPs won’t be worrying about getting to their second jobs on time, and a fully staffed custodial team won’t be struggling to keep their schools clean.
Today’s union membership and contract negotiations will provide tomorrow’s students the opportunity to learn in such an improved environment. When we organize through VEA, Virginia’s educators will show the Commonwealth that we truly are in it for the outcome.
Jennifer Naperala, a member of the Chesapeake Education Association, is an English teacher at Hickory High School.