The Role of Teacher Unions in Urban Districts


By Michael Rebne

According to Linda-Darling Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University, we are entering a crisis that is decades in the making. Aside from seeing fewer college graduates choose teaching as a profession, retention of those who do choose it is also a problem. The reason for both, according to Hammond, stems primarily from a lack of teacher autonomy in the classroom. Teaching doesn’t feel much like an appealing profession when states increasingly aim to control what teachers do minute by minute in the classroom.

The low interest and high attrition rates hold true for both white teachers and teachers of color. The latter statistics are particularly troubling, given the already too-low percentage of teachers of color — driven in large part by racial discrimination in hiring practices — and the increasing need for such teachers. When teachers of color are hired and retained, research shows, they make a big difference in the educational experiences of students, particularly in urban districts with a high percentage of students are students of color.

I teach at a public high school in Kansas City, Kansas, with a high percentage of students of color and know firsthand the value of engaged teachers, especially teachers of color. The problem of hiring and retaining teachers, therefore, has got me thinking about how those of us already committed to the profession, especially those of us in urban districts, can best collectively advocate for a teaching force that feels supported and that serves students well.

One solution is for school districts to embrace and work more collaboratively with teacher unions. The reality that unions have been in decline for decades is no surprise. Much of this is attributable to “right to work” laws — which allow teachers not to join or pay dues — and similar policies that make it increasingly hard for unions to function well.

But perhaps equally important is the need for the teachers unions themselves to define their relevance to both students and teachers. In particular, as schools become more diverse the need for unions to hire and support teachers of color and to work with white teachers on behalf of their increasingly diverse student bodies is essential.

For white teachers working in schools composed primarily of students of color, opportunities to learn are endless. Last spring, for instance, I had a conversation with students about their prom experience and the beautiful mix of what these students called “Black and Mexican” music. I asked them about white music and whether they ever listened to it. They laughed and talked about how white music was good for sleeping. Some, however, also admitted that they enjoyed all kinds of music.

More important, my students have also talked to me about racist incidents they encounter in the community, how neighbors would yell at them — often referring to them as “you Mexicans” — to stop walking through the neighborhood on their way to school. They talked about exploitation at work, too — how they’re taken advantage of and made to feel as if they need to work six days per week or more in order to keep their jobs. These are jobs their families often depend on for survival.

The election of Donald Trump and subsequent efforts to ban Muslims along with constant threats to build a wall on the Mexican border, not to mention Trump’s support refusal to condemn white nationalists, has students demoralized and earnestly wondering if they’ll be seized and deported. How can I tell them they are safe when many reports show otherwise?

Once we teachers show that we are interested and willing to listen, students are eager to educate us about what is true and not true about their cultural and family experiences. These can be rich conversations. I always walk away better understanding my kids and the world we inhabit both separately and together.

Obviously, teachers need to know their subjects and have an overall good grasp of child development and classroom management. It’s important for teachers to be aware of new developments in the field. But I think schools and districts and state departments discount the value of a teacher’s relationship with students. In their recent book, Schooling for Resilience: Improving the Life Trajectory of Black and Latino Boys (Harvard Education Press, 2015), authors Edward Fergus, Pedro Noguera and Margary Martin make it clear that for most students learning is relational.

The conversations I have with students about their lives are repeated many times in many ways throughout the school year. They add up to a wealth of knowledge about my students. And this type of knowledge is invaluable when it comes to deciding how to approach a concept in class or choose the right text to present. It’s the knowledge that I and other educators draw on when we decide when to push our kids to the limit and when to step back and let them drive the pace of class. It helps me determine, for instance, when we can have a Socratic discussion about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or about a recent commercial rocket test. It helps me know when we need to discuss what happened in the community the previous night in order to move forward.

Undoubtedly, teachers of color, who have experienced the kind of racism and discrimination many students have experienced, and who can share similar cultural touchstones, are even better at relating to their students. Indeed, educators who come from similar communities to those of our students need less time to build the kind of trust and understanding that it takes white educators like me to build. This is a huge benefit to the students as well as to colleagues willing to learn from these experiences.

The question that weighs on my mind is how our teachers union can (1) best support the hiring and retention of teachers of color and (2) help white educators develop their sort of cultural competencies needed in order for inner-city students to thrive. Part of the answer lies in getting greater clarity about the purpose and role of our union. The union feels it needs to prove it is interested in engaging with district mandates. Unfortunately, this perspective runs up against a demand from educators that unions focus on protecting their rights and autonomy. This tension has put our union at a crossroads. We understand that our students not only benefit from the recruitment and retention of teachers but especially from the recruitment and retention of teachers of color. We need to decide if the teacher experience we mean to preserve for our kids and ourselves is best protected though recognizing ourselves as a professional organization that focuses on intelligent autonomy and teacher retention or on serving state mandates regardless of teacher and student experiences.

A more pointed and related question is do we entrust our districts and large educational organizations like the Gates Foundation, Teach for America (TFA), Marzano Research and others to decide the best way forward for our kids? Established by white people and a decidedly white perspective, these organizations seek to fulfill white needs to find, as Barbara Applebaum claims, “moral innocence” rather than a commitment to grow through uncertainty and vulnerability. Gates, TFA  and Marzano all feature language in their histories that highlight their white founder/s passionately seeking answers to problems in oppressed communities that, the story goes, no one has had the gumption to seek before.  

In contrast to this, teacher unions are highly localized, already organized, and in a position to honor the experience and expertise of classroom teachers and protect the autonomy of the professionals within them. At our high school, we have met and organized in small heterogeneous groups that have allowed us to plan for larger actions that involve diverse groups for both our school and district. These groups have yielded teacher-speakers at board meetings and thoughtful letters to the editor that have advocated for greater teacher autonomy and benefits.

The work of “ed reform” organizations like the Gates Foundation imply that the most valuable knowledge is centered outside of the teacher and comes from another wiser source. The problem is that these sources are often centered in organizations that themselves are run by operators who come from a white-racialized experience. The teacher, regardless of racial background, will always be located closer to the source of knowledge and experience.

By channeling our energies and passions on quality schools, especially for students of color, and by advocating for more teachers of color and great teacher autonomy from broad, corporate, and packaged district-wide initiatives, we can both protect the pedagogical approaches that are best for our students.

If we are to have a significant positive impact on student outcomes and increase the numbers of teacher of color in classrooms, it makes sense that our unions work to protect and preserve the experience-driven wisdom in the classroom rather than become organizations designed to fulfill the dubious motives of for-profit education publishers and supposed “reformers.” As unions sensitive to the needs of diverse teachers, we can successfully advocate for autonomy and the freedom from restrictions to do our best work for kids.

My experience, in short, suggests we cannot afford to transform ourselves into passive professional associations that seek only to curate outside pedagogical knowledge that bow to mostly white and corporatist perspectives on teaching. We need to activate our local unions to truly organize and bring in the viewpoints of teachers of color to open up real conversations about teaching and learning.


Michael Rebne teaches science, engineering, and composition at Wyandotte High School, a public school in Kansas City, Kansas.