Tension and conflict make good stories. That's why Hollywood's latest crop of movies includes tales of good against evil (Season of the Witch), revenge (True Grit), overcoming inner demons (The King's Speech, Country Strong), and triumphing against all odds (The Fighter).
Conflict also makes good newspaper copy and must-watch TV for the 24-hour cable news beast. (The flight attendant who quit his job via the emergency exit gets 15 minutes of fame, while the flight attendant who works diligently to make you safer and more comfortable gets, at best, a pat on the back.) That's why, when it comes to our schools, the quickest way for a governor or superintendent to grab headlines is to yell "my way or the highway" and come out swinging.
I suppose it should be obvious that bare-knuckles brawling is unlikely to lead to progress, but I have to admit it took me a while to see things this way. When I first became a union leader, I was quick to identify the enemy, fire up members and wage war for what I believed to be right. Eventually, I learned that if you set out looking for a fight, you'll find one -- but you probably won't find a solution.
This is a lesson that AFT members and leaders have taken to heart. Today, teacher union leaders still must fight for the tools and conditions that support teaching and learning, and for smart education policies. More and more, however, our leaders are building strong relationships with school administrators, doing the hard work of collaborative school improvement -- and producing better results for children.
- On the western side of Philadelphia, poverty is commonplace, and, as in other areas, schools struggle to educate students to the level of their more affluent peers. The union and the district could have let poverty be an excuse for setting low expectations for students. Instead, they are working together -- and creating school-based services to help students and their families overcome the effects of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, which keep students from succeeding in school and achieving their dreams.
Those who are serious about improving schools recognize that conflict is a destructive force, especially in the lives of children. Indeed, in my many years as a teacher and union leader, I have never seen a district that produces great results for students in an adversarial, us-versus-them environment. And mass firings, school closures and attacks on teachers are not the formula for successful schools.
There is a lot of talk about the "status quo" in education. Typically, it's a term used to criticize educators or schools that somebody just doesn't like. But the AFT is shaking up the most corrosive, most stubborn and perhaps most subtle characteristics that define the status quo, District by district, community by community, our members are tackling the toughest problems in American education: how to provide a high-quality education for disadvantaged children, how to turn around struggling urban schools, how to invest in children during difficult economic times, and how to help all children achieve the American dream.
There may never be a blockbuster movie that doesn't include a dose of conflict and tension, and that's OK. But collaborative school reform is a story worth telling, and it's our best hope for improving America's schools.