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JENKINS: A contrarian's take on controversial teachers' unions

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

Let me preface this column by stating that I am not a union member, for a couple of pretty good reasons.

First, professors at Georgia's higher education institutions, like K-12 teachers, are not unionized. Many (like me) belong to state or national associations, but those do not function as unions in Georgia, where public employees have no collective bargaining rights and no right to strike.

Also, I have to admit that I've never been keen on the idea of signing away some of my individual rights in favor of group rights, which is what union membership requires.

However, that doesn't mean I don't sympathize to some degree with beleaguered teachers' unions in other states, or that I don't understand why teachers in any state might want to unionize.

There seems to be a widespread misconception, promulgated by right-wing pundits and embraced by those who regard anyone with a college degree as suspect, that teachers' unions exist solely to stymie virtuous administrators seeking to rid the system of bad apples.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, good teachers join unions where they can, and professional associations where they can't, to protect themselves from incompetent, capricious and corrupt administrators.

Because if there's one thing I've learned in 26 years as a teacher, an administrator and a parent, it's that classroom teachers are far more likely than administrators to behave decently and to be good at their jobs.

I'm not saying there aren't plenty of good administrators out there, especially at the lower levels of K-12 education. My children were blessed to have some exceptional principals in elementary and middle school.

Such a principal's influence extends well beyond the school walls. Very few individuals are capable of making such a positive impact upon an entire community.

Unfortunately, a bad or mediocre principal's influence is just as far-reaching. We see the effects of incompetent school leadership all around us.

You have to understand that education is not like the business world. Teachers do not become administrators just because they're good and someone recognizes that and offers them a promotion. In fact, the skills that make a great classroom teacher might not translate at all to administration.

In order to become an administrator, a teacher must first WANT to take that step. Many fine classroom teachers have absolutely no interest in administrative work.

The ones who toss their names into the hat do so for a variety of reasons, including a desire to serve, a desire for a higher salary and a desire to get out of the classroom. In most cases, all three motives come into play, but when numbers two and three outweigh number one, as they all too often do, the consequences can be disastrous.

So yes, I understand why teachers might want to unionize. If you had to work for some of the people they have to work for, you would, too.

Rob Jenkins is a freelance writer and college professor who lives in Lawrenceville. Email him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.