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Mediocre is not good enough

Teacher Teacher (Photo credits: www.myparkingsign.com)

Unions are frequently criticized as being organizations who waste time and resources defending bad actors in the workplace.  Based upon my personal experience, this is true more often than not.   Unions have a legally required duty to provide fair representation to all their members, but it is difficult to watch them defend bad actors over and over just because they “pay their dues”.

That’s what makes what’s this story about a teachers union in St. Louis so unusual.

Critics of tenure say it creates an untouchable class of teachers who can become an impediment to improving public schools.

But in St. Louis, that protection hasn’t been enough to spare several dozen teachers from losing their jobs.

Since 2010, more than 100 teachers have been removed from classrooms — through being fired, pushed to retire or resign — after they were deemed ineffective by their principals. Forty of those teachers had tenure, according to the district, a status designed to protect educators from arbitrary firings.

Though the removals constitute a small percentage of the 1,934 teachers districtwide, they mark a monumental shift in the St. Louis Public Schools, where decades of bad record keeping made firing tenured teachers nearly impossible. They also reflect a broader effort by school district officials to elevate the level of teaching in the city’s 72 public schools and five alternative education sites.

An unlikely partner in the process is the teachers union.

“Remember, this isn’t the union of our mothers,” said Ray Cummings, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 420.

Several times a week, Cummings accompanies Jeff Spiegel, a human resources director for the St. Louis district, to schools where they help principals document teacher performance. They meet with teachers who struggle with such skills as classroom management and connecting with students. Some are on the verge of burnout.

They put them on an improvement plan.

Read that again.

The school district HR guy and the union guy meet with under-performing teachers several times a week, and put them on an improvement plan.

Jointly.  Together.   That is unusual enough to make me say “holy sh*t! – a union that is partnering with management to fix organizational problems, rather than just blindly defending bad actors.  If you’ve never worked in a union shop, you may not truly appreciate just how unusual that is.   Any good union leader will eventually stop defending a loser, but it’s a big stretch politically and philosophically for a union leadership to assume the kind of proactive approach that this group is using.

Spiegel, the former superintendent of Ferguson-Florissant schools, came to St. Louis in 2011 to work solely on improving teaching in the district. Since his arrival, 340 teachers have received ratings on their evaluations poor enough to put them on professional improvement plans, according to the district. After 18 weeks, 181 of those teachers showed significant improvement. The rest, for the most part, were let go.

“You know what? Mediocre is not good enough,” Spiegel said. “We have to have high performing teachers in every classroom.”

Cummings agrees.

Rather than fighting the school district on this, he and other union leaders are in full support. In fact, union representatives make up five of the nine members of the administrative panel that has recommended the dismissal of tenured teachers to human resources.

“At one point, the union was just there to take care of salaries, benefits and to monitor the contract,” Cummings said. “Most members feel we should be raising the profession, making sure the working environment is such we can improve our craft.”

Go read the whole story. It’s worth the three minutes it will take, and then make sure your organization is working as hard to hold people accountable for performance as these guys are!

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