The Next Chapter for Teachers United

The Birth of Teachers United

In 2011, a half-dozen educators from along the I-5 corridor came together in Seattle to share our frustrations with what we saw as a polarized education policy debate. We all believed in the power of teachers. Moreover, we believed that teachers are the most important in-school factor impacting student achievement. We believed that since teacher quality plays such a pivotal role in how students perform, teachers should have a role in shaping education policy, here in Washington State.

At our founding, we were particularly concerned about the issue of LIFO (last in first out), a staffing practice we all frustratingly witnessed punish early career educators and their students.

From this frustration we established Teachers United: a teacher led education-policy advocacy group that seeks to insert the voices of effective educators into the education policy-making process. Our founding goal was to establish a “third way” informed by the practice and opinions of effective educators and rejecting the extremes in the ed policy debate.

Our initial group of members were disappointed in “pie in the sky” reformers, whose top-down-one-size-fits-all accountability measures actually make the work of teaching, especially in high-poverty schools, less rewarding and more difficult. We were also frustrated with parts of our union for clinging to an industrial “seniority is the end-all-and-be-all” policy lens. Many of us tried engaging both machines. We attended meetings and events led by reformers.  We became building reps for our unions and served on local union committees. In both cases, we often found that our words, thoughts, observations and sincere concerns fell on deaf ears.

The Path We Have Walked

Over the first four years of our work we had victories and setbacks. We started a 501(c)(3) non-profit. We secured a series of grants. We published numerous op-eds in local media. We drew new members into the organization and expanded our membership footprint north to Bellingham, east toward Bonney Lake and south to Olympia. Most importantly, our membership in the Tacoma area became the beating heart of the organization.

Our members testified before the state legislature and school board meetings, served on committees formulating policies at the district level. Notably, through a democratic process, TU teachers selected issues of interest and led policy teams that investigated what practices were working nationwide. Their goal was to collect data on practices that could be researched, piloted and if warranted, scaled up here in Washington State.

In 2014, we published a set of policy recommendations called Intentionality: Strategic Preparation & Development to Retain Our Most Effective Teachers, which included our policy recommendations for teacher preparation & certification, professional learning and teacher retention. This was our second major policy document. Since 2011 our policy recommendations have made an impact:

  • Our teachers were the leading teacher voices in Seattle’s campaign and adoption of Preschool for All.

  • Our recommendations about teacher preparation have led local universities to be more intentional about placing student teachers with better trained mentor teachers.

  • Our recommendations about effective and accurate teaching evaluations led to the creation of district pilots around student perception surveys.

  • Our recommendations about professional learning  the basis of pending legislation, creating a statewide definition for high-quality professional learning in the Washington State Legislature.

Our goal was to propose and help implement smart policies that put the needs of our schools and students above maintaining the status-quo or prefabricated reform agendas.

Lesson Learned Along the Way

Throughout this work we faced criticism. Some accused us of being anti-union, for dissenting from their particular brand of unionism. Likewise, people in the reform camp attacked us for our “too cautious”, deliberate policy recommendation process, especially on the issues they were most passionate about. Our members were heckled and harassed at union meetings where they served as elected building reps and the state union convention where they were delegates. Our members and leaders were also gossiped about as being “mercurial” and “boutique” by ed-reformers.

 At a certain point, we became aware of the constraints of the traditional non-profit structure. In talking with policymakers and friends in this work, several truths became apparent:

  • There is a genuine hunger in the Washington State Legislature for thoughtful input from practitioners--they are anxious to meet with and hear from solutions-oriented educators.

  • The non-profit model, when scaled beyond one or two people, forces organizations to prioritize fundraising over their mission; time spent fundraising is time away from the organizational vision.

  • The Seattle education scene is fractured, possibly beyond repair, and filled with ideologues and unproductive turf spats.

  • Members of the reform community claim to value input from teachers, but want it mainly when it is congruent with their policy agendas and priorities.

  • The fundraising community often makes quid-pro-quo requests. In creating our initial opinions and recommendations, we had not been beholden to such requests, and we refused to compromise our values when initial funding ran out.

Given the above, in 2015, TU dissolved its 501(c)(3) and closed its Seattle office. TU teachers in Tacoma held a house meeting and agreed to take on full ownership of the organization, including a severing of ties with the foundation community and agreeing to self-funding our operations. We decided to go our own way and be the grassroots, third way that we envisioned when we began.

In May of 2015, the new TU253 held our Annual Network Meeting and TU teachers decided to focus our efforts around three areas: teacher compensation, professional learning, and improving supports for early career teachers & administrators. They’ve spent the fall and winter researching them and we’ll be releasing new policy recommendations this spring. These policy documents won’t grab headlines or excite the donor class, but they are what we believe will help recruit and retain a more effective teaching force here in Washington State.

From our inception, we’ve believed the single most important in-school factor impacting student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Effective education policy requires the voice of those teachers. The top-down policy-making paradigm and the outsider reform-community agenda push teacher voice out of the policy arena. There is no one better to advocate for our most vulnerable students than their highly effective teachers.

In 2016, TU returns to our (grass)roots to do the work no one else can do.

Teachers United Directors: Nathan Bowling, Sara Ketelsen, Hope Teague-Bowling, Richard Coker, Mary Moser