Governor Christie and the Teachers’ Union

Originally posted on Open Salon on January 21, 2011:

A few comments today on a matter specific to New Jersey. There has been a public relations war going on for some time between our governor, Chris Christie, and the state teachers’ union, and it is going to heat up again very soon. When I speak to people about this, I understand why people get so angry—particularly my fellow teachers.

The cuts the governor imposed for this current school year on state aid to local school districts have proven extremely disruptive. A significant number of teachers across the state lost their jobs or had their positions reduced from full-time to half-time. Class sizes have increased, course offerings have decreased, and more cuts are coming. The governor has received a great deal of praise for taking on the teachers’ unions and for being a champion of the taxpayer.

The irony here is that several districts (including the one for which I teach) had to raise property taxes for the current school year in order to put back a portion of the funds lost through the governor’s cuts. In essence, many local school districts could have—with the same state aid they had received the previous year—cut their overall budgets by the same amount and perhaps even cut property taxes.

Local districts are currently working up their budgets for the next school year, and proposed cuts will bring about still more painful—and some argue, unnecessary—cuts to personnel and programs. The governor’s detractors generally say that he is positioning himself for an election on the national level. They claim he is whipping up public sentiment and trying in order to create a favorable conception of himself at the expense of public institutions.

People can take their sides on the issues, and as the saying goes, reasonable people can disagree. My own problem with the situation, however, is that everything has become too emotionally charged. This is particularly true when it comes to relations between the state teachers’ union and the governor. At this point, there is no meaningful dialogue and no spirit of negotiation and compromise. Both sides share blame for this.

Personally, I am most concerned about Governor Christie’s confrontational attitude toward the teachers’ union, and I am reminded of an incident that took place last year in my school’s cafeteria. I offer it here as a parable for the governor, as he could learn a great deal about constructive ways to wield power and authority.

A veteran teacher was on lunch duty when a novice teacher approached and said she was hit with, of all things, a chicken nugget. She did not know whether it was aimed at her, or even who threw it; she knew only which table the projectile came from–one populated by seventh-grade boys.

The veteran teacher said he would try to look into the matter. He calmly approached the table of boys, asked about the incident, and was immediately stonewalled. With ten minutes remaining in the lunch period, he said that the circumstances demanded justice, and the most appropriate form of it would be an apology by the culprit to the offended teacher. Given the time constraints and his desire to see someone own up, no additional punishment would be imposed.

No one claimed responsibility; no one ratted.

The teacher could easily have tried to bully the kids and threaten them. Instead, he removed them to a classroom and instructed the boys to sit. He made a few brief remarks, telling them he respected their solidarity and saw an advantage in the strength of their loyalty to each other. He also said that they knew darn well that an apology was necessary. He would leave the room while the boys worked on the guilty party. They had three minutes.

In two minutes, the teacher returned, and one of the boys reported that they were almost finished, but they needed an additional minute. Granted that minute, they prevailed upon the boy who threw the nugget to confess. The teacher ordered the student back to the cafeteria to apologize, which he duly did.

That table full of recalcitrant boys could have done a week’s worth of detention standing on their heads—and learned nothing from it. Additionally, neither the teacher nor the students would have learned anything positive if the boys had turned against each other and sold out the miscreant. Instead, they all learned a transformative lesson and developed a respectful working relationship.

If the public is so uncharitable to look at this group of mischievous boys as a microcosm of the teachers’ union (and recent rhetoric might suggest they would), then for the sake of argument only, I’ll go along with it. People trying to reform education, then, can either characterize union members as self-interested, lazy, incompetent, disaffected louts, or respond to them in the manner of the veteran teacher in the story above.

The stakes are high, and there is a lot to lose. But there are also things both sides can gain.

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