I am a teacher in Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, and I am a member of JCEA. I am “the teachers’ union,” and I thought I’d tell you all a little about that.
I joined in 1986, my first year at Columbine High School. I didn’t really know anything about unions or any other kind of collective bargaining unit. Neither of my parents had ever belonged to one, though my step mom was a teacher and a member of her association. (JCEA is an association, not actually a union. No Jeffco teacher is required to be a member, and whether they belong or not, they are covered by the contract negotiated by JCEA’s collective bargaining process.) My step mom never talked about compensation. As for most teachers, it always took a backseat to her classroom. I just knew that NEA, CEA, and JCEA were my professional associations, so as a professional, I joined.
I belonged until the controversial dismissal of a colleague. I will tell you true, I don’t think he was a high quality teacher. Many people have the idea that unions and associations protect weak members, and I felt that was happening in this case. I know the association has to represent all its members, but I didn’t feel they were looking out for kids’ best interests, and that has always been my primary focus, so I quit.
Several years later, while Bush was still governor of Texas, before NCLB became the law of the land, our governor, Bill Owens, pushed through high-stakes test legislation for Colorado. In short, we had NCLB before the rest of the country. I knew that legislation had been written and backed by pro-voucher, anti-public education organizations. I saw what it meant: Create tests so poorly designed that kids won’t do well. Make them the be-all and end-all of schools. Make school complicit in their own demise chasing that ridiculous test. Who would get screwed in this process? My students. As one person, one voice, I could do nothing. I knew I had to join my voice with other teachers who, like me, were worried about kids. I rejoined JCEA.
For years I was a nominal member. I knew my CEA and NEA dues were supporting efforts to tone down the testing craze and to keep teachers’ voices in the discussion about education. Then my district implemented a curriculum that I believed very strongly was designed only with the TCAP (the Colorado state test) in mind. It was not a curriculum that prepared students for colleges and careers. It would have made my job easier, but I didn’t become a teacher to have it easy. I became a teacher to make a difference in the lives of kids. Let me tell you, you do something I think hurts my students, and I get pissed!
Unsure whom else to turn to, I went to my association to set up meetings with district curriculum developers. It didn’t go exactly as I wished, but here’s what the general public needs to understand: I could go to bat for kids because I had the association behind me. I didn’t have to fear for my job if I dared to speak out for kids. To this day, I continue to speak passionately on behalf of meaningful curriculum for Jeffco students, and the association continues to protect me.
This more active roll in the association led to my attendance at the CEA leadership conference last summer. Contrary to what the general public might expect, I did not attend a single meeting about compensation—no talk of salaries, benefits, or pensions. We talked about how we could better partner with community groups to strengthen public schools. We talked about how to be more effective in the classroom. We talked to each other to share ideas and best practices. The entire focus was getting the best results for kids in Colorado schools. I loved it!
When I came back from that mountain retreat, I became part of the steering committee for an academy of professional development for teachers, creating classes to make teachers more effective. I volunteered hours of my time for this. I also learned all that the association was doing to help develop meaningful, rigorous teacher evaluation. To my surprise, I met people who, as part of their association duties, helped counsel ineffective teachers out of the field. The association absolutely understands that poor teachers are not good for kids or for the image of our profession.
I should mention, too, that when our district faced a serious funding crisis, our association negotiated a contract that cost teachers many thousands of dollars. It sacrificed pay increases, and in fact created pay cuts then froze our salaries there. This didn’t just affect our year-to-year pay. It cost each one of us many thousands of dollars over the course of our careers and our retirement. We traded in staff development days for furlough days, too. We could have avoided this by increasing class sizes and pushing for many more cuts to classroom funding, but we didn’t. We voted voluntarily to make these sacrifices because we knew the district truly was in crisis, and we wanted to keep cuts as far from the classroom as possible. I wish I could say that I am super special in my dedication to my students, but I’m actually quite typical.
I know people have the idea that teachers complain a lot about their compensation, but I don’t. Like I said, I willingly and without complaint made the sacrifices I was asked to make. That said, we cannot always balance school budgets out of teachers’ salaries. At some point, we have to think about attracting and keeping good young teachers. If I love my students (and truly I do), how can I, in good conscience, encourage them to enter a field where they cannot make a living? Right now it’s not amazing, but it’s not bad, but if we keep cutting…?
Last November, Jefferson County elected three anti-public education members to the school board. The voters didn’t know that’s what they were doing. These three were not at all forthcoming about their agenda. Even now that they are on the board, they make decisions behind closed doors and behind the backs of the two other board members who are in the middle of their terms. People are going to notice that teachers, both inside and outside the association, are very much opposed to the actions of these members. In turn, I hear the anti-teacher rhetoric going full-throttle, often not directed at individual teachers so much as “that teachers’ union.” So I just thought I’d tell you that I am the teachers’ union. Chances are very good that, if you have kids in Jeffco schools, their teachers are also “the teachers’ union.” The JCEA office is in a little strip mall behind a craft store. It has a staff of five. Please, look at their pictures. There isn’t a thug among them. The rest of “the union” is made up of teachers like me who love kids.
One last note, because it’s such a huge part of anti-teacher rhetoric, let me tell you a bit about pensions. One of the reasons I don’t complain about what appears, on the surface, to be a ridiculously low salary given my education and years of experience, not to mention my expertise as an English teacher gleaned from my experience as a published author, is that I am fully aware of the value of my pension. What you may not know is that I have paid into that pension for the past 26 years (and I will continue to pay at least 4 more years, or until I retire). It hasn’t just been handed to me. Of course, the district has paid in, too. I often hear people say, “I don’t get a pension; why should you?” Well, I don’t have anyone paying mortgage payments to me, but that’s no excuse for not making my mortgage payments. No one pays me for home loans because I never loaned anyone money for a home. I make a mortgage payment because I didn’t pay full market value for my house up front. I agreed to make smaller payments over an extended period of time. Basically, the public did the same with my salary. I have accepted less than others with similar education and experience because the rest was coming later.
Also, in case you didn’t know, I and many other teachers have worked outside of education, as well. When we have done this, we have paid into Social Security. Because we are getting PERA (pensions), we are ineligible to collect Social Security. Where does the money we put in go? To those of you who will collect SS! (You’re welcome.) My husband has never paid into PERA. He has paid into SS since he was 15. If he dies before me (and he’s a male who is older than me, so there’s a pretty good chance of that) I cannot collect any SS widow’s benefits. I gave those up in exchange for my pension. Where will the money he paid go? You guessed it. (And again, you’re welcome.) Does my pension still sound so exorbitant?
So that’s it. My experience with JCEA. No union thugs. No complaining about how awful my job is. Just a teacher who loves kids working together with other teachers who love kids to preserve a quality public education for all.