Thursday, February 11, 2021


There’s a certain look on students’ faces when they’re learning. Behind that expression their brains are making connections, associations, projections. Their imaginations formulate questions: “If that’s true, then what about…?” And “What would happen if…?” and “Could it be that…?” A good teacher knows the lesson is working by the questions it generates. I wish I could have pulled out a camera and photographed them, but that would have ruined the moment.

I always enjoyed seeing that look when I had a classroom and now I’m seeing it on the faces of my grandchildren. Not, however, when they’re doing “remote learning.” Because of continued overreaction to Covid, they seldom go into classrooms anymore and that’s too bad. Lately when the four belonging to my youngest daughter visit, they bring along their laptops to access their teachers through Zoom at certain designated times. Zoom learning is okay in an emergency but it’s a poor substitute for being in a classroom with a good teacher. I look for the telltale expression as they’re gazing at their screens but I’ve yet to see it.

Another daughter asked me to teach U. S. History to her son this year and I’ve been doing that once a week for months. I’ve thus observed him accessing “remote learning” as well and I’m not encouraged. Public school systems are pretending that all is well but it’s not. While I was still in the public schools ten years ago, I saw steadily declining academic standards and wrote about it many times. That was depressing, but the recent school shutdowns have been disastrous for those standards. My only hope at this point is that teachers’s unions, who have for decades lobbied state and federal agencies to resist teacher accountability for student learning, are being exposed for the selfish, controlling bullies they are as they use their enormous clout to keep schools closed.

When first hearing about Covid, we all agreed to shut down schools along with everything else last winter. More recent evidence, however, indicates that school closures weren’t necessary because the chance of children dying from Covid were and are extremely remote. We didn’t know a year ago but we do now. To continue the school shutdowns, as the teachers’ unions are insisting, is madness. The unions claim they’re still at risk for Covid but there’s little evidence for that. Most studies published so far point in the opposite direction. Anthony Fauci has repeatedly recommended that schools reopen." 

My first exposure to teachers’ unions was in 1979/80 when I left an administrative post and returned to the classroom. I signed a form to allow union dues to be deducted from my paycheck and soon found myself serving as chief negotiator for the local NEA affiliate. It troubled me that all classroom teachers got the same pay regardless of ability or performance. Every teacher was paid under a formula that only considered years served and number of degrees. Performance evaluations had nothing to do with salary. There were more than a few incompetent teachers who were veterans with advanced degrees and they were usually active in the union.

Sometimes intelligent, well-meaning people get teaching contracts but are not able to do the job for various reasons. They could be let go for any reason during their first two years, but after they signed a contract for the third year they could only be fired for “just cause.” That wording seemed okay with me during negotiations until I realized that if a lazy or otherwise incompetent teacher was protected by the union, it would cost the district $250,000 in legal fees to fire him, and that was in the 1980s. It would likely cost several times that now.

Each year, a state union official with a fancy vehicle, a big expense account, and pushy personality would take the negotiating team out for a lavish dinner. He would tell us to demand nothing less than a certain starting salary for beginning teachers, how much to demand in annual increments, and how big a benefit package to insist on — all based on what other teachers in Maine and nationally were getting. When I inquired about merit pay, he looked at me like I had ten heads and strongly advised against it.

Later in the eighties my political views were moving rightward, but I noticed that virtually all my union dues and everyone else’s went to left-wing causes. When I tried to change that I got nowhere. In Maine I could resign from the union but it took a Supreme Court decision before teachers in other states could. In some states, they still pay the union to represent them in negotiations even if they don’t belong, because they aren’t allowed to negotiate on their own.

That was a long time ago, but teachers’ unions have become vastly more powerful since. Just look at who really runs our public schools now as President Biden avoids opposing them on reopening.


CaptDMO said...

I'm so old I remember....
when the Air Traffic Controllers Union thought they were all that..
Richard Trumka seems to be having buyers remorse with assets spent on
the latest Trojan Horse of
"We're all Socialists Now!" (Newsweek)

Montedoro44 said...

I am of two minds about this. Retired math instructor here -- HS & mostly CC totalling ~47 years service.

Long before Covid, I was aware that being in a school building meant I get sick frequently, especially colds or flu in the fall. I learned tactics like when I'm in a stairwell and a person in front of me coughs or sneezes, I turn around & retreat. Friends scoffed. I distanced myself as possible from drippy students who came to my office for help, etc.

While for sure, real classrooms with visible faces & human interactions are ideal, there are physical dangers. Maybe ways can be found to give teachers a choice, say, until vaccines do their work, whether they must return.

BTW, when I began in HS in 1966, the NEA & AFT were competing unions, and I was AFT, the more left of the two, until NEA took over by legally extracting dues whether you joined or not. So it went, so it goes.

Linda Bradley said...

Hi Tom, just finished reading your article in the BN. I am just curious about your grandchildren doing remote learning as I thought most schools in Maine were doing a hybrid model. My understanding of this is that the parents could choose which type of learning they wanted. I have grand nieces and nephews in Maine, two go to school full time and one does on line learning.
I mostly agreed with what you said about teachers unions except that evaluations for such things as merit pay depend on the ability of the administrator doing the observation. That too can be skewed. I’m sure we both know a few.

Tom McLaughlin said...

Yes Linda, they had a choice to do the hybrid model but it was an abbreviated schedule as I recall, and they would have to wear masks all day. Two of them were looking forward to being part of that newer outdoor program Jotham and Megan run and were accepted into it.

Mostly it was the mask mandate that made them choose to stay at home. They were homeschooled for years and are still connected with that community. They started at Molly Ockett and liked it until it closed down this time last year.

As for merit pay, it doesn't have to be left up to administration. Students can, for example, be pre and post-tested for achievement each year. The teacher can be responsible for cognitive knowledge gained during the time he/she has the students.

Kafir said...

I taught overseas for 3 years back in the mid 70’s (Afghanistan & So. Korea). When I got back, I substituted for a while and then went on to other things. Even then the handwriting was on the wall regarding the liberal takeover of our public schools and the power of the teacher unions. Now, they’ve become full blown indoctrination centers.

Take for example the Rutherford County Tennessee school district that asked parents to sign a form not to eavesdrop on students’ virtual classes. What the hell? And as far as the dumbing down of our kids through Common Core, the public schools are in deep trouble.

I feel bad for kids, parents and the good teachers who value the benefits of education. However, the China Virus exposed a lot of flaws with our system. I expected positive changes with the Trump administration, not now however.