A few weeks ago, I wrote a document called “In the wake of the testing boycott: a 10-point proposal for teacher self-organization” for the Creativity Not Control blog. Creativity Not Control is an embryonic organizing project that I’m helping build in Seattle, in collaboration with other teachers, parents and students. Most recently, we organized to support and expand the boycott of the MAP standardized test, and my proposal highlights some of the dynamic features of this struggle, suggesting how we can build upon these as we move forward.
Because several points in my proposal deal with teacher unions and their limitations, it was posted on Advance the Struggle’s blog, as part of their ongoing public debate about how revolutionaries should relate to unions. I encourage folks to check out that debate, as well as the comments section at Creativity Not Control, where John Garvey, Noel Ignatiev and I engage in further debate about teachers’ unions, white supremacy, and whether schools will be abolished in a future communist society. (Garvey and Ignatiev are former editors of Race Traitor Magazine and both have extensive experience organizing outside the context of traditional trade unionism.)
On a related note, J.A from Advance the Struggle and I recently gave talks at UCLA and interviews on KPFK radio about our different experiences with unions during the Decolonize/ Occupy movement; we each discussed how our analyses of the interaction between union and non-union struggles have shaped our current organizing efforts around public education.
Here is the 10 point proposal – I welcome critique, feedback, counterproposals, etc:
The teacher, student, and family boycott of the MAP test in Seattle is an inspiring event that has the potential to generate a new wave of organizing in and around public schools. The boycott signals the possibility of a movement for creativity, not control and learning for life, not labor.
However, for these possibilities to come to fruition, teachers need to organize ourselves so that we can continue to take bold direct action. We need to unite with students, their families, and the rest of the working class to create more actions like this one. If we simply return to the same old activist patterns of proposing resolutions at union meetings or lobbying politicians then we will miss the historic possibilities this moment opens. In that spirit, here are a few proposals for how we can move forward.
1) Let’s teach well, break the rules that make that impossible, and get each other’s backs when we face retaliation.
Educational policy is set by bureaucrats and billionaires, not people who have actual experience in the classroom. To change policy from above, you need millions of dollars in funding to hire lobbyists. There is no way that teachers, students, and working class public school families will be able to beat the corporate interests at this game they have set up.
Instead, we should assert our own power at the school and community level. If a state or district policy is oppressing and failing students then we should simply refuse to follow it – the Seattle teachers who are boycotting the MAP test show us that this is entirely possible to pull off, and that this kind of action will earn broad support from working class people.
Likewise, instead of allowing the corporate education deformers to monopolize the political agenda in the name of reforming schools, we should transform our schools ourselves through collective direct action. We should form our own grassroots think tanks to research best practices in education, and then should implement these in our classrooms, without waiting for the district, state, or federal government to approve or promote them.
To put it another way, we should occupy and decolonize our own classrooms, and do “teach-ins” as part of our daily practice – throwing out the oppressive, damaging, boring, racist, and authoritarian curriculum they want us to teach, and creating a liberating curriculum together with each other, our students, and their /our communities.
2) Let’s fight to develop an anti-oppressive, student-centered curriculum
When I say “best practices” and “teaching well”, I don’t mean using instructional practices that improve test scores according to some corporate driven, pseudo-scientific research studies. I mean the methods that the best classroom teachers already use in our communities and around the world. I mean the practices that respect and build upon student and family needs, desires, and expectations, so that trust and community can be built in and around the classroom.
I am thinking of practices like culturally relevant, anti-racist, multicultural curricula, student-centered cooperative learning, and classroom activities where students and teachers construct knowledge together instead of the teacher depositing knowledge in the students’ brains in an authoritarian/ top down fashion. I’m thinking of an anti-patriarchal curriculum that helps create a school community where sexual assault, rape culture, and violence against LGBTQ folks is confronted not just by formal “anti-bullying” policies but by students and teachers taking responsibility for checking each other and creating a liberating, safe environment.
To do this we will have to break the rules. We will have to refuse to use class time for boring standardized test prep and rote memorization. We will have to reject Eurocentric/ white washed curricula, even if the school or district expects us to teach them. We will have to challenge academic tracking, which tends to reproduce race and class hierarchies, as well as school social events and dress codes that reproduce rape culture and oppressive gender roles. We will have to refuse to participate in discriminatory suspension policies, and other aspects of the school-to-prison pipeline. In short, we will have to come together to critically assess every aspect of how we teach and how our schools are organized, building a grassroots basis to reorganize all of this through collective direct action.
3) Let’s overcome individualism and competition; let’s collaborate with each other
Obviously, one teacher cannot do all of this alone. This is not Freedom Writers or Dangerous Minds. It is not about individual hot shot teachers trying to patronizingly “save” students by beating the odds through sheer willpower. Good teaching and learning requires collaboration, camaraderie, and community. As the Creativity Not Control “about us” statement puts it:
“When the system celebrates [some] teachers as exceptional individuals, it covers up the real lessons here: that the actual heroes are the students, that they are capable of a lot more than what society has assigned them, and they are only capable of creating this when they cooperate instead of compete with each other. Focusing on the myth of the exceptional teacher who rises above her colleagues undermines the cooperative spirit that makes this success possible in the first place. The exceptional teacher is held up as a prop to get other teachers to feel lazy and guilty if they are not working 70 hour weeks and destroying their personal lives and mental health in order to excel in the classroom. The reality is, for these kinds of successes to become the standard, instead of the exception, we need creativity not control, and we need collective learning that prepares us for life, not labor.”
4) Let’s combine struggles over teaching with labor struggles
If you talk with progressive or radical teachers today, you’ll find that each of us tends to find a different niche in the schools. Some consider their teaching itself to be their activism, and they focus on doing the best they can within the constraints of the system to make sure that their working class students get a good education. Others focus on multi-cultural education and critical literacy, seeing themselves as equipping their students with the tools necessary to challenge oppression in their lives. Still others see teaching as a kind of W.E.B. Duboisian service to their ethnic/ racial/national community, building up young leaders to fight against white supremacy. Finally, some get involved in union meetings or try to fight union busting, budget cuts, merit pay, etc.
Each of these practices, if taken on its own, is limited. For example, without a sense of collective labor struggle, multi-cultural educators will only be able to go so far in implementing an anti-racist curriculum; we will start to compromise with the white supremacist system in order to keep our jobs unless we know that our coworkers are prepared to strike over it. Conversely, rank and file union activists might fight for a stronger, more active, more democratic teachers’ union, but if they are not also fighting for anti-racist schools, then they are still complicit in reproducing institutionalized white supremacy.
5) Let’s fight for the time to think, care, and collaborate
I know that many teachers will think I am setting an unreasonable standard here – most of us barely have enough time to finish our grading and lesson plans, let alone to do all of this organizing. That’s why a major part of all of our struggles needs to be a fight over time – a fight against the excessive bureaucratic paperwork we are increasingly asked to complete, a fight for smaller class sizes, and a fight for paid time in the workday to collaborate with our coworkers and students to create liberating curricula and learning experiences.
However, the proposal I am making builds off of what good teachers already do: we communicate with our students, their families, and our coworkers, and we plan our classroom activities with their needs and interests in mind. This proposal would simply take it to the next level, building the kind of solidarity necessary to do this as consistently as we all want to.
6) Let’s fight against corporate union busting
Across the country, teachers’ unions are under attack by corporate educational reformers and the attacks don’t show any sign of letting up. There are several reasons why we should mobilize to prevent corporate union busting. First of all, it is very expensive to become a teacher, and many of us will be paying off student loans for a long time. Union contracts keep our pay just high enough for teachers from working class backgrounds to be able to barely pay off the education necessary to enter the field in the first place. If unions are busted then many of us will be working second jobs and sleeping even less than we are now just to pay our student loan bills.
Teaching as a field is already not nearly accessible enough to working class youth, especially folks from communities of color. Teacher training programs act like gatekeepers, creating many hoops that students have to jump through. If unions are busted and teacher pay goes down, many youth of color who are interested in becoming teachers might choose other careers in order to pay back their student loans. This will help keep the profession white, middle class dominated.
In some cases, we can use teachers’ unions to help prevent arbitrary firing. For example, we may be able to use the union contract as a shield to protect ourselves if they try to fire us for engaging in the kind of organizing described in points 1-6. However, as I argue below, it is not enough of a shield, and we need to build our own protection. And the union is not an effective tool for going on the kind of offensive struggles we need to wage against against the white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalist competitiveness our schools currently reproduce each generation.
Like unions in general, teachers unions are set up to make sure that we as workers get the full value of our wages under capitalism -wages that can make it possible for us to pay for the education, housing, clothing, etc. necessary for us to keep coming to work. However, no worker under a capitalist system ever gets paid the full value of the work we put in because the wealthy pocket the difference as their profits. Also, many exclusionary unions have been complicit in maintaining privileges for white workers or male workers at the expense of the rest of the working class. Moreover, in a sexist/ patriarchal system, wages are also lower than they should be because the system is built on the assumption that someone – usually women – will be doing unpaid labor at home washing dishes and doing laundry and taking care of our kids so that we can make it into work: the system does not account for this labor when it measures the value of our wages. Teachers who do this unpaid labor at home are essentially working two shifts a day – two shifts of difficult caring labor. US unions as a whole do not have a good track record when it comes to struggling against these deeper injustices.
7) Let’s organize independently from the union
Also, most teachers’ unions across the country have not been effective at fighting the corporate education deformers’ agenda. This is because the corporate interests are appealing to parents and students who are fed up with the problems in the public education system. Instead of overcoming these problems through the kid of direct action organizing I’m proposing here, the unions have simply rallied around the slogan “defend public education”. Think about it for a second – how many of you have passed out flyers saying “defend public education”, and gotten a response from working class folks – especially youth – who ask you “what is there to defend?”
Again, this is the brilliance of the Seattle testing strike: it wasn’t just another union contract struggle in which union leaders pay lip service to parent and student interests. It was an example of teachers actually taking collective direct action to make sure that students can learn instead of waste time.
If the Garfield High teachers in Seattle had waited to propose to the union to initiate this action, they would have been waiting forever. This is because the currently existing unions are simply not set up to do these kinds of actions. As stated above, they are set up to make sure the capitalists don’t drive our wages below a set value. But in return for the right to collectively bargain around wages and benefits, the unions sign contracts that actually limit our creativity, giving the administration legalized control over us on the job. We forfeit our ability to self-organize.
Many collective bargaining agreements state that matters of school organization, classroom placement, and curriculum are the administration’s prerogatives. For example, Seattle Superintendent Jose Banda invoked the union contract when he threatened to discipline teachers for insubordination because they were refusing to give the MAP test.
The Seattle Educator’s Association did vote to support the boycotting teachers, which is great. However, what does this support mean in practice? Did the union organize to expand the boycott to all schools in the district? Did they call mass public meetings of teachers, family members, and students to widen the boycott? Did they use their connections to the national union structures to try to expand the boycott outside of Seattle? Did they try to link up the struggle with the struggles of warehouse workers, longshore workers, or striking NYC school bus drivers going on at the same time? Did they open up discussions about the possibility of striking if teachers face discipline for the boycott? All of these moves would have been powerful. Most of them would have also violated either a) union contracts, b) US labor law , c) the union’s own rules and bureaucracy or d) the union’s claim to defend teachers only, not the entire working class. Union leaders naturalize all four of these limits and confine strategizing within them; often they outright attack teachers who try to go beyond them.
If we continue to accept these rules and limits, we will never have the power to actually transform the racist, boring, oppressive, controlling conditions in so many schools. Whether we like it or not, if we don’t act we will be blamed for these conditions, not only by the corporate education deformers, but by fellow working class folks from our own communities, as I discuss below. Good teachers encourage their students to think outside of the box, to take risks in the name of conscience, and never to use the constraints of the system as an excuse to refuse responsibility for our own lives. Our students can easily say the same thing back to us: “instead of telling us what you can’t do, when are you going to actually take responsibility for changing your situation?”
Given all of this, I’d like to propose the following:
a) That we start building formal and informal committees that can operate independently of both the union and the anti-union organizations. These committees can choose to defend the union when it’s under attack from the right wing; for example, we should intervene if city governments use contract negotiations as excuses to attack teachers, increase class sizes, etc. However, we should not wait for the union to defend us, our students, or their families.
b) These committees should include teachers, students, and their families. They should include education workers of all job classifications, whether unionized or nonunionized: after school workers, custodians, teachers at charter schools, etc. As we saw during the Chicago teachers’ strike this fall, during union contract negotiations only the specific group of teachers who are bargaining actually have a say at the bargaining table. While they might mobilize in solidarity with students and families, only the teachers – and usually only their union reps – actually have a say in strategizing or bargaining meetings. We need to overcome these divisions by creating broader working class-wide committees where we can struggle and strategize together.
c) These committees should focus on taking collective direct action to transform our schools, as proposed above.
d) These committees should work in coalition with union reform caucuses like Social Equality Educators to accomplish specific tasks together. However, they should maintain their autonomy and should not get sucked into efforts to run for union office. With limited time and energy, we should focus our attention on uniting teacher, family, and student struggles against oppression in the schools. If union reform activists want to collaborate around this, we should work with them but should brainstorm and propose strategies that go beyond the limits set by the union structure. We should set our goals based on what our communities need, not what is legal or contractually protected.
8) Let’s be accountable to the rest of the working class – not to corporate bureaucrats.
Our schools educate youth from the entire working class; therefore, what happens in them is the concern of the entire class. Instead of acting like middle class professionals who aim to defend our historic privileges, teachers should unite with the rest of the working class as the class starts to move and rise up against this failing system. As any teacher who works in a large urban district should know, the future of this working class is global, majority non-white, and composed of many complex genders. It is people who are employed, unemployed, working at home, hustling, and in prison. Teachers need to act like these are our people, or get out of the way.
It is not about sensitivity trainings and diversity window dressing; it is about basic solidarity. We should stop acting like another constituency who aim to get a better deal for ourselves alone, under this system. In fact, we carry the honor and responsibility of educating and learning with our class’s children, the very human beings who are most likely to create a new society to replace this broken one. This honor and responsibility should not be taken lightly; if we neglect to do it well, we are essentially scabbing on the rest of the class by participating in the reproduction of the race and gender divisions that keep folks chained.
When my friends and I organized the Dec. 12th port shutdown as part of the Decolonize/ Occupy movement, some port union officials argued that it was none of our business to mobilize at the ports without their permission. We replied by saying that the port is public property and what happens there affects the whole working class; we were there to shut down Wall St. on the Waterfront, particularly terminal 18 which is partially owned by Goldman Sachs, a bank responsible for countless misery here and around the world. They cut short the lives of people in our community, and we retaliated by cutting the flow of their goods – and their profits. We were also mobilizing in solidarity with immigrant port truckers at that terminal who face so much racism on the job that they are not even allowed to use the port bathrooms; a few months later, they went on strike. ( I am a member of a group called the Black Orchid Collective, and we wrote a controversial piece about all of this here.)
During these controversies, I told longshore workers at the union hall that if they were to mobilize in the schools around what is happening to their children, I would welcome them with open arms and would not ever ask them to get permission from the teachers’ union before showing up. I mean that, and I think all of us teachers should have that attitude of respect toward working class folks from any industry or walk of life – whether employed or unemployed.
When it comes to education, no one is an outside agitator – except for the corporate scumbags trying to ruin our schools.
9) Let’s stop trying to act like professionals, but let’s not let them turn us into prison guards either.
Fellow teachers might respond to my last proposal by reminding me that part of the attack on teachers unions is an effort to deprofessionalize our jobs. Isn’t all my rhetoric about not acting like a special constituency of professionals just playing into the hands of the right wing?
It is true that they are trying to deprofessionalize us, which means taking away some of our historic privileges, including a few privileges once secured in our union contracts. But we need to go deeper into understanding why this is happening, instead of promoting nostalgia for the good old days, which were not really that good for most people.
Our deprofessionalization is the result of the ever-widening divide between the thinking classes and the working classes. Some students are tracked into the thinking classes, where they learn the skills necessary to manage and administer the increasingly high-tech, automated economy where robots are replacing factory workers. Other students are tracked into the working classes where they prepare to flip burgers or sweep floors as part of the service industries that have replaced those factory jobs. Still others are tracked into unemployment and prison, what some call the school to prison pipeline. The thinking classes need highly-skilled, merit-paid teachers who use the latest techniques and technologies to prepare a new generation of managers. Meanwhile, they are assigning everyone else to the working classes and the school to prison pipeline, which will be fed by teachers who only need to know how to instill discipline in their students like pseudo-prison guards.
In other words, they are trying to split our f0rmer “profession” into a cadre of elite, overworked hyperteachers and masses of lower paid education service workers/ disciplinarians who will run the penitentiary prep classes. Ironically, as we loose pay, professional status, and control of our own work process, our managerial role over students actually increases. So either way, we are pushed out of the working class: we either become elite professionals looking down on the class from an ivory tower, or we become tough managers keeping the class in check like street-level bureaucrats.
We need to fight both of these outcomes. But we can’t fight them simply in defence of our own former professional prestige and pay. We need to fight them in solidarity with our working class students who are getting pushed further down every day. If we keep publicly asserting our right to be treated as “professionals” then we will isolate ourselves further from the rest of the working class who will come to see our role as ivory tower elites; without the backing of the rest of the class, our struggles will fail and our jobs will become more and more stressful. At the same time, if we keep accepting concessions and the system’s vision of deprofessionalization, then most of us will be commanded to assert more and more prison-like control over our students, and our unions will become something akin to the notoriously hated prison guard and police unions – if they continue to exist at all.
10 ) Let’s think globally and act locally
To prevent these outcomes, we should learn from teacher struggles around the world, where teachers have shown a little more backbone and have fought militantly for themselves, their students, and their communities. From the Oaxaca uprising of 2006 (which started as a teacher strike), through the anti-austerity demonstrations across Europe today, we can take inspiration from the fact that teachers are on the move. Movements like Decolonize/ Occupy, the Wisconsin labor upsurge, or the militant actions of port workers in Longview show that this kind of energy has started to erupt here as well, though at a smaller scale.
During the Occupy movement, there were small but spirited high school student walkouts here in Seattle, especially during the Dec. 12th Port Shutdown and later during May Day. Occupy in particular brought new energy into classrooms across the city, with youth helping build and defend the camp, and activists from the movement regularly speaking at schools.
There is a real possibility of students initiating new waves of movements that go beyond the limitations of these recent upsurges, and in the process they could agitate and radicalize their teachers.
Instead of simply fighting for our own narrow interests, teachers should realize that our own freedom, creativity, and well-being is linked with everyone else’s, and our best option is to join these movements, making our classrooms and schools hot beds of creative struggle.
We welcome discussion about these proposals in the comments section, as well as response pieces and counter-proposals.
1. The ideas in this article were formed in conversation with folks from Creativity Not Control, Classroom Struggle , Advance the Struggle, Insurgent Notes, Black Orchid Collective, and Fire Next Time. Thank you everyone for the vibrant collaboration.
2. If you reproduce or quote this article, please include an attribution and link back to the original posting. Thanks!