Union support in the classroom

justin-mitchellAfter I graduated from college, I started working as a public school teacher in New York. I’ll never forget my first day walking into the classroom — I was full of joy and excitement as I welcomed my sixth graders to their first day of school, ready to inspire them to become critical thinkers and active participants in our democracy.

Unfortunately, the feeling didn’t last long. Due to the No Child Left Behind Act, I had to shift my focus from teaching critical thinking and creativity toward preparation for high-stakes testing. The administration even tried to peg my pay to student performance on those tests. I felt devastated — like when a dream turns into a nightmare just after it begins.

But my colleagues and I weren’t alone; we were joined together in our union. As I talked to my colleagues, I realized none of us thought the “teach-to-the-test” model was in the best interest of our students. And it wasn’t just our school — we were united with public school teachers across the city and the country who felt the same. Slowly, the tide shifted — and No Child Left Behind wasn’t the driving force behind all the decisions. At a time of great uncertainty, we stood up for ourselves in our unions — protecting our ability to teach critical thinking in the classroom and fair pay for professional work that isn’t tied to a monolithic metric like student test scores. In the face of daunting obstacles, we were stronger together.

Now, I am confident that forming a union as graduate students with SEIU is the right thing to do because of my own experience as a union member. Even when conditions are good, we are more secure when we are united. If we wait, it may be too late. Who knows when the next No Child Left Behind might threaten our nation’s education system? What would that look like in higher education? While we can’t predict the future, we can choose to stand together, and join the growing national movement of graduate students and faculty forming unions with SEIU. I hope my colleagues will join me when I vote yes!

Justin Mitchell