The full name of our union is “United Federation of Teachers: A Union of Professionals.” Behind that name lies a simple but essential truth. We become teachers, nurses and educators for two reasons: we need to make a living to support ourselves and our loved ones, and we want to make a difference in the lives of the students we teach and nurture and the patients for whom we care. Both of those purposes are important to us, and we want our union, the UFT, to lead the way in helping us achieve them.
That’s where professional unionism comes in. With UFT Unity leadership and a commitment to being a union of professionals, the UFT battles on both of these fronts. It does the traditional union work of fighting to improve our compensation and the conditions of the work we perform, and defending our pensions, our safety, our health and our rights in the workplace. And its educational work supports us in making a difference in the lives of others. Our union is our shield in defending and shaping the future of our professions, and our voice in protecting and enhancing the quality of the education and the health care we provide to our students and our patients. Professionally, we need our union to promote and protect the autonomy, the skills and the knowledge of teaching and nursing from efforts to de-professionalize and micromanage our work and to turn our schools and hospitals into little more than assembly line factories.
Professional unionism has long been central to the work of UFT Unity, and to the vision of the leaders of the UFT elected from our caucus. Over the next week, we will unpack what that means in practice with a series of posts. Today, we will discuss ways in which our professional unionism is on the offense – supporting us in becoming accomplished teachers, promoting teacher excellence and leadership, and supporting educational innovation and collaboration in our schools. In the second post, we will discuss ways in which our professional union defends us – contractual clauses that protect our professional autonomy, programs that help both novice and experienced teachers struggling in the classroom and the union’s defense of our intellectual and academic freedom when it comes under attack. And in the third post, we will do a deep dive into the question of the fight to reduce class size.
Let’s start with this impressive record of UFT Unity on professional unionism:
PROVIDING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
- With Unity leadership, the UFT created and sustains the union run and teacher led UFT Teacher Center, which currently has sites and staff in 115 public schools across the city, with a concentration in under-resourced schools serving vulnerable populations. The Teacher Center provides comprehensive professional development for UFT educators, with peer-to-peer study groups, teacher teams and mentoring. A particular focus is the development of culturally competent instruction. The sites provide teachers with access to learning technology and the supports to integrate it in classroom instruction. During the pandemic, the Teacher Center developed on-line professional development and aids for teaching virtually.
- Developed with Unity leadership, the UFT Educational Programs provide teachers with access to inexpensive college courses that can be used for completing their teaching licensure requirements and the requirements for attaining salary differentials.
- With Unity leadership, our national union, the AFT, created and sustains the shareware site Share My Lesson, the largest on-line library of lesson plans and provider of educator webinars in the U.S. – all entirely free to U.S. educators.
PROMOTING TEACHING EXCELLENCE AND LEADERSHIP
- Created from the vision of the late UFT and AFT President Al Shanker and supported by the AFT and NEA, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards provides a rigorous, nationally recognized certification of accomplished teaching. The NBPTS core propositions of what teachers should know and be able to do were developed by teacher practitioners, and it is governed by a board with a majority of active classroom teachers. The Teacher Center supports NYC teachers in the NBPTS certification process, and NBPTS certification can be used to meet the requirements of the second salary differential.
- With Unity leadership, the UFT has negotiated a number of positions within the New York City public schools – mentors, lead teachers, coaches, teacher ambassadors, peer collaborative teachers, teacher team leader, teacher development facilitator – that allow members to play important roles in instructional leadership and professional development and help other educators without becoming supervisors.
- With Unity leadership, the AFT has developed the Teacher Leaders program, designed to develop and promote teacher voice in educational policy discussions and decision-making. In the program, classroom teachers engage in action research on educational issues that are important in their schools and to their students, develop policy recommendations and advocate for changes in policy with decision-makers and elected officials. The UFT participates in Teacher Leaders.
PROMOTING EDUCATIONAL INNOVATION AND COLLABORATIVE SCHOOLS
- With Unity leadership, the UFT developed school-based options which gives UFT chapters in schools with collaborative cultures the power to modify DoE regulations and contractual clauses to engage in education experiments.
- With Unity leadership, the UFT developed PROSE (Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence) which allows UFT chapters in schools with collaborative cultures the ability to change the most basic parameters of how their schools function, in areas such as the hiring and evaluation of teachers and teacher and student programming and scheduling. Currently, there are 175 schools in PROSE.
- With UFT Unity leadership, the UFT has supported the inquiry learning and performance assessment work of the UFT educators in the collaborative schools which make up the New York Performance Standards Consortium, and backs the inclusion of new schools in the consortium when UFT chapters want to join.
How does the record of the opposition caucuses in UFCUFT compare?
You won’t find the words ‘professionalism’ or ‘professional unionism’ in the election platform of Unity’s opposition, the UFCUFT. You can scan the thousands of angry tweets their caucuses have published since the last election, and you will find no mention of professionalism. In fact, when you read their platform and their tweets, you will find very little about education and absolutely nothing about nursing, as if the thousands of UFT nurse members didn’t even exist.
The absence of ‘professional unionism’ in the UFCUFT platform and in the tweets of their caucuses is not an accident or an oversight. In their estimation, professionalism is elitism. They have the mistaken notion that union solidarity relies on all teachers being the same, like de-skilled workers on an assembly line, and so they disagree with the promotion of teaching excellence, teacher leadership and educational innovation. They don’t view professional development that supports us in becoming the best educators we can be as a priority for the UFT.
When UFT Unity first proposed school-based options, and then again when it first developed the PROSE schools, it was people from caucuses now part of UFCUFT that spoke out in opposition: they argued that union solidarity required that all schools should be organized in the same way, just as all factories producing cars are organized along the same industrial principles, and that all schools must follow the same prescriptive rules, even when those rules stand in the way of educational innovations that gave teachers more voice in how their schools were run.
But for UFT Unity, solidarity is not about all of us being the same and doing the same things, but about the rich diversity of the educators and nurses in the UFT coming together in common cause. Solidarity is our commitment to support each other in our fight for a better world – for ourselves and our families, and in our classes and our schools, our patients’ rooms and our hospitals, and our communities.
We understand that a vital part of that common cause is the defense of public education and not-for-profit and public health care from privatizers and profiteers, and that this fight is most effective when we are providing the highest quality public education and health care.
We believe that it is the practitioners – teachers and nurses – who know best how to deliver high quality education and health care, and that their union should provide them with voice on educational and health care issues. That’s why our common cause includes protecting the future of the teaching and nursing professions, at a time when there are those who would want to de-professionalize, de-skill and micro-manage our work.
With the leadership of Unity, the UFT has done the work of professional unionism for so long and built so much, that it is easy to take it all for granted. But institutions like the union run and teacher led UFT Teacher Center don’t just happen: there is a budget of many millions of dollars that has to be raised every year to keep it going. Every year, the UFT has to convince City Hall and Albany to provide funds for that budget. It takes hard work, both in campaigns to elect members of City Council and the State Legislature that are supportive of education issues and in lobbying those elected officials, to make that happen. Rank and file members of UFT Unity do that work, with virtually no participation from the opposition caucuses in UFCUFT.
UFT Unity: we do the work of professional unionism.