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Teacher Voice

Is School Reform Incompatible with Teacher Unionism?

Contrary to all the contentious sword rattling between teachers unions and school reformers, efforts to improve our schools are not as permanently bifurcated as we might think. In fact, some educators are on the vanguard of bridging the divides and opening new vistas of understanding that just might lead us all to more productive discussions about education. One such educator is Tom Rademacher, Minnesota’s 2014 teacher of the year, who consistently offers thoughtful, restorative commentary through his blog Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood. Refusing to fall into the usual traps of false choices and ad hominem that stilts progress in education, he brings critical reflections we need to move forward.

Seeking Nuance and Humanity

But it isn’t easy. He has joined colleagues in Educators 4 Excellence, a school reform network for progressive educators. Because of this, he encounters people who question his integrity — even as teacher of the year and a very active union member. He writes:
There’s a lot of lies that get told about Educators 4 Excellence (E4E), a lot of exaggerations and over-simplifications that get told about the reform movement in general. I hear them fairly often as a fairly visible teacher who is union-active and a proud member of E4E. There’s a lot of things said about what I believe and why, and they are often not particularly kind-spirited. I get it. It’s really easy to fight against something that is obviously awful. It’s so much harder to seek nuance and humanity in the arguments of people you disagree with. For me, it’s simple. I go where teachers are gathering because I like to be involved. I go where work is getting done because I see a great need. I don’t believe schools are as good as they could be, and I am energized by new ideas. Still, I wasn’t surprised when, in an online forum for Minnesota teachers I started this year, a discussion of ideas was diverted for a moment so some assumptions about how and who I work with and why could be made. At first, I did what I generally do, and tried to re-focus the conversation on ideas, solutions, and opportunities for cooperation.
Rademacher goes on to call for an end to vituperative exchanges in favor of focusing on our common goals.
Between unions and E4E in Minnesota, the attacks have been one-sided, and when I look my students in the eye, the battle-line drawing, especially among teachers, feels completely ridiculous. There are bigger battles, battles that need our cooperation. We share so many goals (better, more rational funding for schools — most especially for early childhood programs and for schools that serve students living in poverty — a more diverse and actively anti-racist teacher force, more professional respect and a stronger voice for teachers), and the achievement of those goals is more important than a battle to beat down each other.
Read more of Rademacher’s thoughtful blog post, The Buttons on Our Bags.
Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...

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