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A New Educator Narrative

August 28, 2012 By Mary Cathryn Ricker, Guest Commentary

Like most teachers, I went into teaching because I wanted to do the sort of work that left the world better than I found it with the talent I had. Likewise, I became active in my union because I wanted to improve my profession. This became an opportunity to continue the work my dad and his generation had started to strengthen teaching and learning that they had inherited from the teacher leaders who came before them, too.

There is a story about us that doesn't acknowledge any of that motivation and a story about public education that is being told about us that says the contrary: that we're all bad teachers and our unions don't help. This story that gets retold says all those generations, including mine, are unqualified, unmotivated, and uncaring. The story gets expanded at times to purport that teaching itself is a racket and we go into it for the big payouts of salary, health insurance and pensions. It is a story that deliberately seeks to divide us from the students and families we serve.

At our recent American Federation of Teachers convention in Detroit this summer, President Randi Weingarten called for an increase on the focus of solution-driven unionism and I couldn't agree more. It is time for us to tell our story of why we want to work with students and families, why we went in to teaching, why we joined our union, how our union wants to represent us and what we are doing as teachers and a teachers' union to better meet the needs of our students and their families.

We are committed to our students as individuals and we're committed to our students as a union. We're committed to our profession as individuals and we're committed to our profession as a union.

Does this sound like the nameless, faceless teachers union you hear about everyday in that other story?

So why aren't we seen for who we are? Why, when they seem to keep clamoring for a union to behave differently, when presented with evidence that one does, why do they treat us exactly like they always have?

And who are they anyway?

In my case, "they" represents the newspaper editor who told me that no one wanted to read about our union's alternative licensure program being developed because it wasn't newsworthy or the local foundation leader who said that investing in a teacher's union idea would hurt their foundation's reputation, as two examples. "They" represent everyone who felt they had to believe that other story that claims to know what labor is for and what labor wants.

So, if you were to open yourself up to another story about labor, about teacher's unions, what would you find out that labor wants?

Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor's historic reply was:

"We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures."

What would I say if decision-makers and public officials were to actually ask me, "What does (our union) the St. Paul Federation of Teachers want?"

We want our union to be trusted. Our local union is already leading the way in teacher quality and responsibility to our students and our profession. We want our members to be seen as a resource with the expertise to improve public education. When you trust educators to be part of the solution, that solution will be successful.

We want decision-makers and public officials to step out of the story being told about us and see us for who we really are, the role we can play and how we can contribute.

See more of us as professionals who are dedicated to meeting the needs of our students and less of us as veteran teachers who cost too much to keep.

See more of the role we can play in designing and supporting continuous growth in our profession and less of the "bad teacher" campaign designed to discredit all of us.

See how unsatisfied our union was with the support our teachers had been getting and how stubborn we were to stay at the bargaining table until there was a real solution to supporting and improving teaching through a full-spectrum peer assistance and review program for all of our members.

See more of how we contribute to improving teaching and learning—through the Parent/Teacher Home Visit Project, Future Educators of St. Paul, and more--and less of the cheap, easy and false label of 'status quo.'

We need more decision-makers and public officials who will lead the way with us—including supporting CareerTeacher, our alternative licensure program that seeks to diversify the profession and fill hard-to-staff license areas—and less of decision-makers and public officials who want to do things to us because they don't care about the ideas we have.

Make no mistake, decision-makers and public officials have a clear choice: Stay in the narrative that seeks to destroy our ability to meet the needs of students and our profession or, step out of it.

Stepping out of that other story of us means that solutions include our ideas--and no one apologizes for that. Staying in that other story means our ideas stay completely left out and our expertise stays unvalued.

Stepping out of that other story means that decisions will be driven as close to the classroom as possible, where they will be most relevant to the students we serve. Staying in that other story means decisions get made entirely by adults who have no direct responsibility to our students.

Ultimately, stepping out of that other story means that decision-makers and public officials who join us are committed to solving problems together and everyone knows that is good for students.

It is time to step out of that caricature of teachers and our union, and time to step into the reality of trusting us and working together. With another school year right around the corner, I invite it to happen as soon as possible.


Mary Cathryn D. Ricker is a National Board Certified teacher currently serving as President of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers. She was recently elected to the American Federation of Teachers Executive Council and continues to serve on the AFT Program and Policy Council.

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  • Legender says:

    September 4, 2012 at 9:35 am

    The teachers I know work incredibly hard with long hours with little time to sit back and think about what to do next. My teacher friends get to school about an hour before the students, work all day without a break and then leave 1-2 hours after the students. The manage student conferences in the evening and often run other (unpaid) evening activities. And for this they are paid very little.
    As someone said to me, “Brains are the only true renewable resource”. Let’s get back to having education be essential, necessary and approved of.