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Learning at its Best

Rise of the teacher guild

I just finished watching the education documentary Waiting for Superman for the first time.

It does a pretty good job at describing some of the challenges facing our education system, and the filmmakers should be applauded for having the guts to actually offer concrete suggestions for fixing it. The filmmakers highlight the successes of programs like KIPP Academy and Geoffrey Canada’s charter school in Harlem. “We know what works,” the movie declares: longer school hours, high expectations, and the freedom from union rules that protect bad teachers.

What seems beyond dispute is that longer school hours and high expectations work for a lot of families. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that’s what works for all families—for example I don’t see Bill Gates, who’s featured in the movie, devoting any resources towards getting a KIPP school in Seattle so his kids can attend—or fantasize that there is one right way to do school.

In addition, it seems clear that schools should be free from union rules that protect bad teachers. But if you’re going to get rid of the bad ones, you should have a plan for how to attract good ones to replace them.

I had lunch yesterday with a former student, who gave me the inside scoop on what’s been happening at our old school. Apparently, the principal has been successful is moving out a few unpopular teachers. At the same time, a brilliant genetics teacher and an inspiring computer science teacher have moved on voluntarily. The’re headed for PhD programs or the private sector, someplace where they can do high quality work in an environment that treats them with dignity.

* * *

I attended a Seth Godin lecture in Seattle a couple weeks ago, and someone in the audience asked him about the future of unions. He suggested that the future belonged not to unions, but to guilds. In Hollywood, for example, there are various guilds for the behind-the-camera work that require its members to be really, really good. That’s why the production value of Hollywood movies is so high. If you want to make a great movie, you need to hire a cinematographer that’s a member of the guild, because she’s going to be among the very best.

Godin says the error made by the United Auto Workers in the 1980s was not that they didn’t fight hard enough for the right protections, but they fought for the wrong things. He said, “They should have gone on strike and said, ‘We’re not coming back to work until you design better cars.’”

* * *

Teachers unions are at a similar crossroads. Instead of fighting for continued protections, they should be fighting for the right to do high quality work.

Imagine if, at the end of the next collective bargaining, the teachers went on strike and said, “We’re not coming back to work unless you eliminate grades, stop forcing students to take required classes that they’re not interested in, and give us the freedom to teach material that makes our hearts sing.”

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7 thoughts on “Rise of the teacher guild

  1. I can’t believe I haven’t thought of guilds, as opposed to unions, before now. Then again, I can’t believe I’ve made it this far into my nerdy life without playing World of Warcraft, but here we are.

    Steve, this is a brilliant idea for teacher self-organization that looks more like the pedagogical and philosophical families forming on social media that the labor-relations blocs formed by unions. My head is atwitter.

    How would you go about beginning a guild for like-minded teachers?

    Many thanks,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 10, 2011, 3:11 pm
  2. At the risk of starting a firestorm here, I have to quibble with the description of the way guilds work in Hollywood. I’m a member of the Writers Guild of America, the craft guild for film and television writers. The Writers Guild is completely open to anyone — the only proviso is that you have to be able to get hired in your field. If you can get work, you can join the union. The result of this is that all the good writers are in the union. A lot of bad writers are in the union, too. The good people work more and the bad people work less, but everybody’s in the union, so essentially all productions use union writers and have to pay union fees and benefits. The WGA is more powerful because everybody’s in it.

    The production crafts in Hollywood have an exclusive union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which tightly controls who can enter their craft guilds. This must be what Seth Godin is referring to when he says that these unions “require (their) members to be really really good.” The trouble is that this a really really bad description of the situation. These unions have many barriers to entry, but these barriers don’t really reflect talent or ability, so the result is that: (1) lots of talented people can’t get into the unions, and (2) not all union members are particularly talented. In other words, there are good and bad people inside the union, and good and bad people outside the union. What’s the result? Lots of non-union productions which are able to assemble very good crews and produce high quality films without paying union scale.

    The second scenario is in fact parallel to the teachers’ unions, but I would question whether this is a good thing in the long run for teachers. The teachers’ unions create barriers to membership – certification, for one – with the result that many talented teachers are not able to join teachers’ unions. As everybody well knows, certification is no guarantee of teacher competence, so there are both good and bad teachers inside the union, and good and bad teachers outside of it. This creates a powerful economic incentive for schools to hire non-union teachers. Elite private schools, for example, scoop up talented non-certified non-union teachers and provide a top-quality education without the unions, with the result that many dedicated and talented people are working in the teaching profession and getting lousy pay and benefits.

    In the early days of the great industrial unions, a fundamental precept of labor organizers like Big Bill Haywood and Mother Jones was “open union, closed shop.” That means that you have to (1) let everybody into your union (“open union’) and then (2) insist that your industry hire only union workers (“closed shop.”) One of the great union-busting techniques was for industries to capitalize on the racism of the unions — which often excluded black or immigrant workers from membership — to hire qualified black or immigrant miners or factory workers from outside the union. This divide-and-conquer strategy was very successful in declawing the union movement until the big industrial unions realized they would have to drop their exclusivity. The principle here is that only by having an open union – allowing black, immigrants, or, say, non-certified teachers into your union – will you be able to prevent your industry from hiring non-union labor. You need to have all the good people inside your union. Then you try to unionize your whole industry. As long as you keep a pool of able workers outside your union, you undermine your own strength in the long run.

    Posted by Carol Black | July 10, 2011, 6:23 pm
    • Carol, your reply went far more in depth than the original article in exploring this subject. It’s interesting that both the article and your reply are using the Hollywood-centered guilds as foils for discussion. Sometimes those guilds consider a strike to be the last resort, just as unions do. So, in the end, is there much of any difference between a “guild” and a “union”? Not really. Being a teacher in public school and belonging to the largest of the two unions, my thinking about our union is that years ago they made a huge mistake of giving away the job of quality control and turning it over to the various states’ Boards of Education or Education Departments. Thus, the largest union with the highest uniform level of education of its members has relegated itself to activity that is more similar to the Teamsters than the various guilds. That’s why we are so vulnerable right now to those who would use slogans and generalize a few successes as the Superman movie does.

      Posted by Brett Dickerson | July 10, 2011, 9:05 pm
  3. I’m thinking of something like this with a level of flexibility that allows teachers to form their own communities of practice and service – how would public education have to change to accommodate something like this? Student guilds? Networking services between groups that mesh well together?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 11, 2011, 11:10 am
    • Going along with that definition of guild, Chad, I would argue that schools with flat leadership that engage teachers in big decisions and trust teachers to run the school smoothly as (gasp) professionals would be kind of like a guild.

      As you know, I’m a proponent of co-operatively run schools and organizations, especially those whose #1 purpose is people. I’m wondering how the co-op/guild idea mesh or if they do at all.

      Thanks, Steve, for a thought-provoking post!

      Posted by marybethhertz | July 16, 2011, 1:18 pm
      • Yes, a smartly-run, flat organization allows teachers to be professionals and collaborators. That’s why our site organizations and even our district locals DO become more like guilds than unions. On the other hand, sometimes small-time, petty, politics take over in public schools, and the wrong, inexperienced, disrespectful administrators are hired and appointed who, for the sake of the profession and the students, need to be opposed, sometimes in a forceful way. That’s when it’s time to be a union. Neither of the teacher’s unions stop teachers from operating like guilds. But I’ve seen plenty of inept school boards and central office administrators who did.

        Posted by Brett Dickerson | July 16, 2011, 5:51 pm


  1. Pingback: Edustange » Rise of the teacher guild « Cooperative Catalyst - July 10, 2011

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