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Closing the Generation Gap in Our Unions

March 21, 2014

Teachers are tribal people. We build a nice little fortress and stay inside as much as possible, defending the gates when necessary. This tribalism has saved us in an ever-shifting landscape, but it’s got its limitations and it may soon be the cause of our demise. The two big tribes now are Old Generation and Next Generation teachers, and the most obvious place of need is our local unions. The Next Gen teachers are attracted by the glamour of the reform groups and the promise of an amplified voice; the Old Gen prefers the lunchroom and the union hall. Over the last school year I’ve gotten the chance to hang out with 58 Next Gen teachers from 17 states, courtesy of the NEA. I’ve learned that we’re lined up on either side of a generation gap that is worlds apart, but that each side is a critical part of the equation. We need each other more than we will benefit from sticking with our tribe.

Let's get along

Because the origins of unions are rooted in staying alive in a hostile environment, the Old Generation totally gets the need for protection, collective bargaining and the need to jump up and down once in a while. The Old Gen safeguards everyone’s rights whether they like it or not – experience has taught them that careers are subject to the whim of the public, politicians, and now philanthropists. We once did believe that our good work would be our protection from harm or unfair practices; we never saw the need for pensions or fully-funded health benefits as youngsters. And then life taught us something – we’re treading faster for less money and less respect, and sometimes one of us gets caught in the machinery and goes down. Working conditions, pay raises, benefits, retirement, the bread and butter issues, these are the spears and bagpipes of teachers who are nearing the end of their tenure and see the world falling apart around them. They sometimes see the Next Generation of teachers as an opposing camp, vulnerable to the influence of outside agencies. But these are the people we need to protect us, our profession, and public education and we need to make friends now.

The Next Generation doesn’t seem to register the Old Gen to the same degree. The Old Gen are just irrelevant, cranky strangers in red t-shirts standing outside the board of education, waving signs. These younger folks see step and column pay scales as ridiculous, and can’t understand why anyone would ever have a problem with being evaluated or using student outcome data as part of that evaluation. The reform groups give them opportunities to meet policymakers, be on panels, write policy papers – that’s what drew me in and that’s what we need to do to compete. In the last three years in LA, Next Gen issues have been career pathways, evaluation and new pay structures. They don’t care about retirement right now. But the Next Generation needs to understand that without involvement in the union today, there won’t be a retirement later, or anything else resembling stability. Time to end the tribalism.

So how do unions take responsibility for educating their younger siblings, and why should it be incumbent upon the Next Gen to cooperate with the Old Gen? Union policy is often the result of great ideas for what other people should do. Someone should form a committee! Someone needs to do outreach! Someone should plan an event! Our locals, with the support of state and national affiliates, need to offer professional development, discussions and social events. Our locals need to admit that a panel with dinner and drinks is way more interesting than parliamentary procedure, and then have panel discussions around Next Gen issues with union leadership. Finally, our locals need members like you and me to create opportunity for the Next Gen to learn the relevance of the union, and to be relevant in it. We know there are interesting things happening in our locals even if we have to dig around for them. Find one of those opportunities and take along a young friend.

Our future depends on it.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom White permalink
    March 21, 2014 9:10 am

    Although you may be overstating the dichotomy, your point is well- taken: younger members are less concerned about issues involving job security and benefits than older members. This point is not lost on the NEA, by the way. At a meeting in DC last week, John Stocks, NEA Executive Director, told us that the future of the organization is in professional development, not bargaining issues.

  2. Chris Miraglia permalink
    March 21, 2014 9:27 am

    As a teacher with over twenty-five years experience and who works with many teachers in their first ten years it is quite apparent that what these teachers see as relevant is not necessarily reflective of what I see important, that of stable salary, retirement benefits, etc. Attending rep council meetings is indicative of this divide as one will see very few people with less than ten years experience attending. It is necessary to engage these younger teachers as well as to listen to them. As a member of the CTA Teacher Leadership Cohort, the point made by John Stocks is spot on. Many of the younger teachers are interested in how to provide engaging professional development and their passion definitely needs to be tapped into. Hopefully this energy will put a new face on our unions that is reflective of building our profession as classroom teachers and the new and the old will merge as one.

  3. David B. Cohen permalink*
    March 21, 2014 6:38 pm

    Tom, Chris – glad you both weighed in here. I had a similar reaction to Lisa’s post. For those who haven’t been studying Lisa’s CV, it’s worth noting that Lisa is a career changer, and I think that may have something to do with her ability to relate to people at different career stages. She seems like a peer to those of us of, um… a certain age… but she can relate to the more recent cohorts of teachers as well.

  4. Lisa Alva permalink
    March 22, 2014 11:36 am

    Brian Muller of UTLA has done a comprehensive analysis of all recent in-house legislation in order to determine UTLA core values. When I look at his research next to the policy paper we’re working on in my NEA fellowship, I see a lot of alignment between Old Gen and Next Gen values and priorities. The real challenge lies in outreach and a welcoming attitude. How do we get out of the silos? David’s right, coming from a business background creates a different perspective, one that educators seem to be suspicious of, but is very very relevant right now. The first wave of UTLA elections is just over, and only 7,000 of 31,000 members voted… There’s a runoff for the presidents seat with the front runner garnering 3,000 votes. Perhaps the definition of Next Gen needs to include more senior teachers who simply don’t engage, as well as the younger ones.

  5. March 23, 2014 4:49 pm

    One thing I learned last week at the Teaching and Learning Conference in D.C. was that I need to be that “somebody” in my area and state. But, I have struggled all week trying to figure out how. Let me explain…
    I would have never realized this had I not attended a session put on by the Department of Education and other teacher leadership sessions. I do realize that I sound very ignorant right now, but I’m telling the truth. This is my 9th year of teaching, and I just now got a handle of my time management of personal and professional time. As a teacher, I’m consumed with improving my practice. So much so that I forget to look up and see the big picture in our profession. Though I pay dues to an association in Texas (no unions here), I have no idea what’s going on with it until I get an email, newsletter and/or magazine. I don’t have a clue who my local representatives are or what’s going on because whatever time I do have I spend doing school or life. So, back to my initial struggle. How do I start and where?
    I contacted NEA to figure out who’s who in my association’s chapter. No one at my school knew. There are 82 staff members at my school; I asked 8. All of whom didn’t know and couldn’t point me in the direction of a teacher that might. I couldn’t figure out that information from the website or any email I received either, which is pretty unfortunate. I also sought out Twitter and Facebook. I had no idea that was even an option of outreach until I looked into it. Then, I got frustrated because I had to do the research. I looked up and realized it took me nearly an hour to get that information. Let me remind you that I’m pretty literate online, so please don’t discredit me there. If anything, it was after a long day of school fun. Anyway, that got me wondering if any other members had this issue. I also wondered what the deal was? Then, I remembered the conference. One of the many things I enjoyed there was the interaction with passionate, driven educators. The conversations and connections I made there were energizing and unforgettable. So much so that they inspired me to seek out educators in this area. They made me believe in myself and my role outside of the classroom and helped me realize that my experiences matter. That I need a voice for my profession and students.
    You see, both generations need people just as much as we need written communication. At the beginning of our career we are slaves to the school by choice, and having an outlet to connect with others at a Happy Hour to relax and hear other aspects of our craft in the policy world would be fun to a lot of educators regardless of years in the profession. Through those relationships and connections we all would grow our profession because our profession at its core is a people profession. We enjoy getting together, discussing, connecting, collaborating, encouraging, motivating, learning, exploring, etc. Why not do that within our unions and associations more? It is fun. Everything right now isn’t fun in education, so why make our professional communities unfun too?
    It was nice to be around like minded professionals in D.C. Now, I hope to find a group in my area that can keep me energized, hopeful, and informed around a drink or meal. I cannot be the only one that yearns for this community. Maybe the unions and associations can be that outlet for educators- old and new.
    Thank you for this article. I am hopeful that things change soon because this is a real issue. Here’s to hoping I can discuss it more in person with a fellow member. 🙂

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 23, 2014 8:02 pm

      Amy, thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s unfortunate that it takes so much effort on your end, and that apparently there’s an association that has been so hard to find even when someone’s looking for them. I agree about the Teaching and Learning Conference being a wonderful opportunity to find professional peers with similar goals and outlooks, and hope to cross paths with you in the future.

    • Lisa Alva permalink
      March 24, 2014 8:56 am

      Amy, wow, what a great accounting of a not-so-great experience. I’d love to use part of it as testimony for a paper I’m helping write that will make some specific recommendations to the NEA about building membership and dialogue — may I? I’ll also look to see whether some of the folks on the project are from Texas, but I don’t think so. This last weekend I held a “Tiny Conference” at a local brewpub for people like you and had 8 of 20 invitees come; the rest were at conferences, weddings, etc. We need to find someone in your local who’s also desperate (like me) for new input and unheard ideas. Thank you so much for writing.

      • March 24, 2014 7:18 pm

        David, thank you for posting the blog, and I hope our paths cross again soon. I appreciate it.
        Lisa, you may use my testimony in your paper. Thank you for asking, and I hope it helps. Thank you for your concern over my situation too. I’m sure it’ll get cleared up. It seems to be going in that direction anyway.
        After I sent an email to the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) with my questions, I got a very prompt response about the name of my local association and what region of TX it serves. TSTA is the Texas affiliate of the National Education Association. TSTA also gave me names of who was leading it. I emailed the three members that were considered a point of contact from what TSTA said, and I heard back from my association’s V.P. She let me know that there’s a general meeting on April 8th at a local chain restaurant and was thrilled that I was eager to be involved. I looked on my local association’s Facebook, Twitter, and blog accounts and didn’t see any mention of the meeting, so it’s a good thing I reached out to them. I’ll have to express my concern over communication at the general meeting.
        In the meantime, I’ll be spreading the word of the meeting to those that are a part of TSTA and my local association. I’m looking forward to meeting them, and I’m so thankful that (1) I had the time to do some research on it and (2) TSTA and my local association was quick to respond to my email.
        Again, thank you for writing about this, and please be in touch if you need anything else.


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